When it comes to Brexit, Britain’s boisterous new prime minister is determined to succeed where his predecessor failed. Theresa May frittered away her parliamentary majority in a snap election, and then had to settle for an agreement with the European Union that couldn’t pass muster in Parliament. Having failed, she was forced to ask the EU to extend the Brexit deadline and then resigned.
Boris Johnson won’t repeat May’s mistakes. He’s made clear that, “do or die,” the United Kingdom will leave the European Union by the new deadline of Oct. 31. He’s stacked his cabinet with committed Brexiteers and made them commit to leaving on time, deal or no deal. Faced with a parliamentary majority opposed to a no-deal Brexit, he’s suspended Parliament for five more weeks, until Oct. 14, to deprive members of the ability to pass legislation preventing Britain from leaving without a deal. If faced with a no-confidence vote, he’s threatened to dissolve Parliament and call new elections for early November — after Britain will have left the EU.
Johnson’s single-mindedness is impressive. But after having traveled throughout the British Isles these past two weeks, I’m struck by how many ordinary Britons and Irish fear the consequences of Brexit, especially if Britain leaves without a deal. Though sentiment for “leave” has stayed strong in much of England, worries abound elsewhere. For the Irish on both sides of the U.K.-Ireland border, the worry is a return to sectarian violence, which only ended two decades ago. For many Scots, Johnson’s determination to leave the EU raises anew the hope for independence from Britain.
Aware of the fissures, Johnson spent his first days in office affirming his commitment to the union of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The “awesome foursome,” he called them. But it is precisely that union he is now threatening by his determination to leave the European Union.
Johnson’s defenders claim that his resolve is necessary to convince the EU to give Britain a better deal than what it offered a less-determined May. Once Brussels is convinced that Britain is serious about leaving without a deal, it will give London what it wants, they say. And what Britain wants is the removal of the Irish backstop — a legal requirement in the withdrawal agreement ensuring that no hard border of customs and other checks would return along the border with Ireland.
Johnson has insisted the backstop be removed even before he is willing to enter into new negotiations with Brussels. The EU is open to considering alternative arrangements, though none have yet been able to square the circle of keeping the Irish border open for trade in goods and services while Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. are no longer in the European single market and customs union.
Brussels has made clear that any agreement with the U.K. must ensure an open Irish border and the integrity of the single market. The backstop, which would keep the U.K. in the customs union and Northern Ireland in key aspects of the single market until new arrangements can be agreed by both sides, will need to stay in any agreement.
There are only two ways to end this impasse — either Britain crashes out of the European Union on Oct. 31 or one or both sides blink and arrive at a final deal acceptable to both. (The third possibility, of new British elections before Oct. 31 that would bring a new government committed to holding another referendum, appears to be fading rapidly.)
The costs of a no-deal Brexit are becoming increasingly evident. Leaked government plans foreshadow a shortage of food, medicines and chaos at ports, airports and border crossings that will last for months or more. The overall economic costs would also be severe, as Britain slides into recession and stands to lose upward of 5% in national income.
The long-term political consequences could be more lasting. The return of a hard border in Ireland would stoke renewed violence and strengthen sentiment on both sides of the border to unite the Island. Scotland, which voted 2-to-1 against Brexit, would see support for independence, already rising, increase sharply in the wake of a no-deal Brexit. Thus, within a few years of Brexit, the very union itself could disappear.
That prospect might, in the end, force Johnson to blink and settle for less. It wouldn’t need to be the EU-May deal that Parliament already voted down three times. Instead it might involve accepting the backstop for Northern Ireland and instituting customs and other checks on the Irish Sea. That limited backstop fulfills the EU’s requirement of no hard border and integrity of the single market, even if it violates the economic integrity of the U.K. itself. But that may be a price Johnson is willing to pay to secure the Brexit he has long championed. And it might preserve the union.
Ivo Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.