POLITICS
16/09/2019 19:04 BST | Updated 16/09/2019 23:24 BST

Why Boris Johnson Can't Ignore The Big Noise From Small EU Countries

Even tiny countries like Luxembourg can have a big role in deciding the future of the UK.

Sign up now to get The Waugh Zone, our weekday evening politics briefing, by email. 

For Bettel, for worse

Boris Johnson’s knack of attracting hecklers crossed the Channel today as anti-Brexit protesters staged their noisy demo in Luxembourg. Johnson is of course now perfectly accustomed to attracting abuse (“Oi, Boris! You banker!”, or words to that effect). But what was new was him being effectively heckled by a fellow PM, just minutes after their talks ended.

Xavier Bettel’s decision to ‘empty chair’ his British counterpart guaranteed headlines and memes about the Incredible Hulk running scared of a few loud hailers. No.10 made plain he had pulled out of the outdoor press conference because it would have been too noisy and had urged Bettel to switch it indoors. They countered there was no room indoors for all the journalists.

What will get the TV headlines are the loud boos that greeted Johnson, as well as Bettel’s emotional frustration after their talks. “These are home-made problems!” he said. But his more telling point was that the UK hadn’t come up with a single new alternative plan for Brexit to solve that Irish backstop issue. “There are no changes. There are no concrete proposals. Time is ticking so stop speaking and act!”

Remainers will have cheered Bettel, while Leave voters would have thought he was a walking advert for why they wanted to quit the EU. What’s more important is whether Johnson really can get a deal in time for his October 31 deadline. 

Brexit committee chairman Hilary Benn echoed Bettel’s frustration this afternoon. He wrote to the PM to remind him that he promised MPs on September 3 he would be bringing forward proposals setting out an alternative to the backstop “long before” the 30-day timetable suggested by Chancellor Merkel came to end (er, in four days’ time).

As I said last week, I understand there is a legal ‘text’ for a deal within No.10, but they are keeping it under wraps until they get the EU to agree to reopen negotiations. There was a glimmer of hope when No.10 said Johnson and Jean-Claude Juncker had today “agreed that talks should also take place at a political level between Michel Barnier and the Brexit secretary”.

Many still suspect Johnson is just either going through the motions to run down the clock or simply hasn’t a substantive proposal ready. One way of running down that clock is if Johnson can somehow swerve the Benn Act requiring a Brexit delay. Notably, Dominic Raab refused to rule out a legal challenge, saying “the precise implications of the legislation need to be looked at very carefully”.

Jolyon Maugham, the lawyer who has inflicted defeats on the government, caused serious jitters among some Remainers yesterday when he publicly expressed his worry that there could be a loophole in the Benn Act (Brexiteers vote for a deal in a meaningful vote but then run down the clock and fail to ratify in time for Halloween). 

But one Labour source tells me: “If that’s the biggest weakness in the bill, then No.10 really are in trouble”. The Benn Act’s careful drafters believe they can use an amendment (the 2018 Act says motions approving the deal are amendable) to cover off the Maugham problem. And Maugham now says he’s had a “reassuring conversation” that sounds like something similar.

Which brings us back to Johnson’s urgent need to get a Brexit deal - and to Luxembourg. Even if they compromise on some elements of the backstop plan, the EU will certainly drive a hard bargain over future trade in return. We should never forget that UK-EU trade deal will take years of negotiation. 

And guess what? As the EU-Canada trade deal showed, small countries as tiny as Luxembourg (population less than Leeds) will have a veto over what’s eventually in that deal. That’s the whole point of the European Union after all: pooled sovereignty gives small states (like Ireland) real clout.

Bettel won’t claim he’s a world leader. But he and others like him can have a big say over the UK’s future.

Quote Of The Day

“Don’t put the blame on us because now they don’t know how to get out of this ...situation”

– Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel warns Tory Brexiteers they should not blame the EU for no-deal. But avoids saying ‘shambles’.

Monday Cheat Sheet

David Cameron said it was “rather sharp practice” of Boris Johnson to suspend parliament for five weeks. He also told ITV’s Tom Bradby the PM would turn a bad decision into a “disastrous” one if he failed to readmit rebel Tory MPs (“hard-working, loyal Conservatives”) to the party whip.

No.10 distanced itself (or threw a bucket of manure over) a suggestion by Brexit secretary Steve Barclay that the UK could extend the current “transition” period, which is due to run until the end of 2020.  “It would require the prime minister to request an extension to the implementation period and he’s not going to do that,” the PM’s spokesman said. Dominic Raab agreed.

Some 90% of motions to Labour’s conference call for the party to back Remain in any new EU referendum. Marsha de Cordova, the shadow minister for disabled people, warned “there is no middle ground when it comes to campaigning in an EU referendum”. At present, the party is only committed to holding a referendum with a “credible” Leave option and Remain.

Former government chief scientist Prof Sir David King said “it’s appropriate to be scared” about the increasing number of floods and heatwaves linked to climate-change. “We predicted temperatures would rise, but we didn’t foresee these sorts of extreme events we’re getting so soon,” he told the BBC.

Got A Tip?

Send tips, stories, quotes, pics, plugs or gossip to waugh.zone@huffpost.com. 

Make sense of politics. Sign up to the Waugh Zone and get the political day in a nutshell.