THE LAST time continental Europeans felt they were dealing with an easily readable, straightforward British prime minister was in the late 1990s. Tony Blair charmed his continental colleagues. He wooed the French in their own language, led fellow heads of government on a bike ride through Amsterdam during a Dutch-led summit and made common cause with fellow “third way” social democrats like Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s then chancellor. Set against the backdrop of the “Cool Britannia” popularity of British music and fashion, this all suggested that Britain had finally cast off its conflicted post-imperial garb and was embracing a modern, European identity.The glow faded when the Iraq war sundered Mr Blair from the French and the Germans. Then came Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May,
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THE LAST time continental Europeans felt they were dealing with an easily readable, straightforward British prime minister was in the late 1990s. Tony Blair charmed his continental colleagues. He wooed the French in their own language, led fellow heads of government on a bike ride through Amsterdam during a Dutch-led summit and made common cause with fellow “third way” social democrats like Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s then chancellor. Set against the backdrop of the “Cool Britannia” popularity of British music and fashion, this all suggested that Britain had finally cast off its conflicted post-imperial garb and was embracing a modern, European identity.
The glow faded when the Iraq war sundered Mr Blair from the French and the Germans. Then came Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May, who were all harder to place. All three made nice at European summits but flirted with the Eurosceptic tabloids at home. Mrs May took office in July 2016 after the country had voted for Brexit. But who was she? She ruled out a second referendum—then considered the most likely outcome in some continental capitals—but did not seem to be “of” the Brexiteers. At times she posed as a Thatcher-style Iron Lady; at others as a sensible Christian democrat. Buffeted by events, she was hard to define and left little lasting impression.
Boris Johnson is a different matter. Unlike his predecessors, Britain’s new prime minister is a familiar personality on the continent. Many in Brussels know him, by reputation or in person, from his time as a reporter there in the 1990s, when he spun highly exaggerated stories about the EU and helped pioneer the outraged Eurosceptic style in the British press. Continentals also know him from the London Olympics in 2012, when his performances as the capital’s buffoonish, zip-wire-riding cheerleader-in-chief caught the attention of the foreign press. Most of all they know him as the villain of the Brexit campaign; the man with a lie about the cost of EU membership on the side of his big red campaign bus who achieved the sort of victory of which nationalist populists on the mainland could only dream.
Mr Johnson is familiar in other ways. Mr Cameron and Mrs May, the previous two Tory prime ministers, bumbled respectively into the Brexit referendum and through the Brexit negotiations, both treating the subject as fundamentally technocratic. By contrast the new prime minister deals in stories and emotions, styling Brexit as a test of the country’s mettle, an Odyssean quest, a heroic battle against the monsters of bureaucratic overreach, federalism and national stagnation. Continental commentators and policymakers view him, it is true, in a different narrative role—as the dastardly embodiment of the post-imperial nostalgia and chauvinism that Mr Blair seemed to have vanquished—but both his self-presentation and the counter-tale make it possible to orient him. Unlike his predecessors Mr Johnson fits neatly into the story his would-be negotiating partners tell themselves about Britain.
Many Eurocrats were raised on British cultural staples such as Harry Potter, Midsomer Murders, Downton Abbey, James Bond and Monty Python. Mr Johnson would not look out of place in any of these imaginary worlds. He is a gift to those continentals who love the familiar clichés; who imagine Britain as an old-fashioned, quasi-Victorian society of rigid class differences, lip-curling toffs and shabby proletarians, absurd social rituals, public-school humour and eccentric colonial adventurers. Mr Blair was simple, initially at least, in that he seemed to show that Britain had changed. Mr Brown, Mr Cameron and Mrs May did not map neatly onto the clichés. But Mr Johnson fits them as snugly as a bearskin hat on a guard outside Buckingham Palace.
All of which bodes poorly for the looming confrontation. Mr Johnson has refused to travel to meet continental leaders unless they change the terms of the Brexit deal negotiated by Mrs May. He wants to remove the “backstop” that would keep Britain close to the EU, and Northern Ireland even closer, unless an alternative technological solution can be found to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. The EU’s leaders consider the matter closed. So no meeting has taken place. Mr Johnson will have his first prime ministerial encounters with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron at the G7 summit from August 24th, and again at an EU summit in mid-October ahead of October 31st, when Britain is currently bound to leave the club. Mr Johnson is increasing preparations for a no-deal departure, hoping to force the EU into compromises to avoid the cost and chaos of such a disorderly exit.
He is miscalculating. The EU is better prepared for a no-deal than Britain and would suffer much less. National leaders are sick of the subject. They consider the current deal generous to Britain—the backstop would grant Britain many of the benefits of belonging to the EU without some of the usual conditions—and are loth to reopen it to make concessions that might further undermine the marginal value of membership. Some, especially in Paris and Brussels, believe that no-deal may be a price worth paying.
Mr Johnson’s familiarity significantly boosts this tendency—for three reasons. First, to know him is to know that he is unreliable, unscrupulous and inconsistent. Second, his story (as leader of a heroic quest) and the story his critics tell (as the villain of a tragedy) both breed fatalism; they shrink the space for the technological fudge of a compromise and make the emotional conflagration of a no-deal more likely. And third, Mr Johnson conforms closely enough to the clichés about Britain that his negotiating partners can fall back on these as explanations for a rupture; this post-imperial, class-ridden, unreconstructed country, they will be able to say, is simply different and might even benefit from the revealing, purgative chaos of a no-deal. Familiarity, at least where Britain’s prime minister is concerned, breeds contempt. ■