‘Depressing, frustrating and shocking’: European press on UK Brexit move

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Publications across EU condemn Boris Johnson’s plans to ‘disapply’ parts of withdrawal agreement

Aghast European media have accused Boris Johnson of “denying reality”, “justifying the unjustifiable” and “trashing his country’s reputation” after the government unveiled Brexit plans that the EU believes breach international law.

“A contract is a contract? Not for Boris Johnson,” wrote Germany’s Der Spiegel of the UK’s internal market bill, which would give ministers sweeping powers to “disapply” parts of the withdrawal agreement the prime minister signed in January.

The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, may call for more realism from the EU, the magazine said. “That’s funny. Because on the EU side, we have long been wondering how to stay realistic in the face of a negotiating partner who adjusts reality weekly.”

The latest British proposal to disregard parts of the Northern Ireland protocol was “depressing, frustrating and shocking – but not really surprising, because when it comes to Northern Ireland, Boris Johnson is a repeat offender”, it said.

Having rejected the backstop agreed by his predecessor then hailed as a triumph what was in fact a major concession to the EU, the prime minister promised Northern Irish business it had nothing to fear – despite a binding international agreement.

“With his latest U-turn, Johnson shows again that he simply makes the world as he likes it,” Der Spiegel concluded. “But he should consider one thing: denial of reality may be a renewable resource, especially worldwide. Patience and trust are not.”

Die Welt said Johnson’s plans to use national legislation to undermine the withdrawal agreement, while insisting he would rather fail to reach an agreement than compromise with the EU, marked a new level of provocation.

“Breaking an international treaty would take Johnson’s well-known bulldozer mentality to new heights,” the paper said, suggesting he was caving in to Tory hardliners and counting on Covid-19 to cover the economic damage of no deal.

In France, Libération said it was now official: “The democratic government of a country respected throughout the world for its legal rigour has proposed to include in its national legislation non-compliance with international law.”

The paper noted the absurdity of the government’s claim the withdrawal agreement had been “negotiated in haste”, pointing out that it had been signed three and a half years after the referendum and formed the basis of Johnson’s election campaign.

“But what is his strategy?” it asked. “Does he want to push the EU to abandon negotiations on a trade agreement and then be able to blame it for the talks’ failure? Or does he think this shocking move will push Brussels to more compromise?”

Either way, it was only to be expected from a prime minister who barely a year ago “tried to justify the unjustifiable when he illegally suspended parliament”. He has “repeatedly shown that his reputation, and that of his country, do not bother him”.

Le Monde, too, wondered whether the government’s latest move was “an attempt to pressure the Europeans to secure a favourable deal before the year-end, or a deliberate move aimed at provoking the breakdown of the talks”.

Brexit was reaching its endgame, the paper said, and for London, negotiating a deal meant limiting the negative consequences of Britain’s decision. It preferred to put its head in the sand, “even if that means trashing the reputation of the United Kingdom”.

The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad said the internal market bill was “clearly in breach of the agreements he made less than a year ago with the EU”.

After firing Tory MPs who disagreed with him and illegally suspending parliament, violating an international treaty is, it seems, another dodgy tool in the PM’s box that he “considers necessary to finally settle Brexit and remain in power”.

It is all part of his “beloved chaos theory”, aimed at creating “maximum pressure and maximum commotion” and eventually giving him what he wants – whatever that is.

Spain’s El País said no one could yet say whether Johnson’s bid to allow the UK to unilaterally modify the agreement was “just another barbaric negotiating ploy”.

The government may insist that it is “acting in good faith” and aims only to “connect the dots and avoid legal loopholes”. But Johnson is plainly not backing down from his decision, “which has poisoned the already tense climate of the talks … Everything suggests that this time, he has gone too far.”

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