The Improbable Triumph of Boris Johnson

Two lessons emerged from the latest Brexit deal: The British prime minister garnered a concession his predecessor couldn’t, but the EU has still held the line.

Boris Johnson salutes his fellow EU leaders.
Pool / Reuters

BRUSSELS—As the Syria conflict entered a new chapter, with Vice President Mike Pence gripping hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara and Russia’s Vladimir Putin basking in the glory of his apparent victory lap in the Middle East, Europe’s leaders assembled here for yet another summit fixated on themselves. None more so than Britain, still wrangling with how to leave a bloc it voted to depart more than three years ago.

Beneath the cover of warm smiles and diplomatic handshakes, petty disputes and genuine grievances quietly bubbled, from the profound to the provincial: over the European Union’s eastward expansion, over the financial hole left by Britain’s impending departure, and, ultimately, over the direction the EU should take under its new leadership.

Dominating it all, though, at least in newspaper-column inches and press interest, was Brexit, that ever present wound in the European body politic, bureaucratically isolated but not cauterized—ugly, energy sapping, and annoying in equal measure. Yet for all the pain it has caused in London, far outweighing the irritation felt on the Continent, it should not be forgotten that Brexit remains the secession of Europe’s second biggest economy, financial center, and primary security power, whose government is now intent on becoming an economic competitor.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson came to Brussels—the city of his childhood—to strike a new divorce deal enacting Brexit, the central promise of his premiership. But Johnson was elected on a pledge to do the impossible—to get rid of the contentious Irish “backstop,” to ensure that Britain was freer of Brussels. The fact is, through diplomatic sleight of hand and some genuine concessions, he succeeded—or at least succeeded sufficiently to make a reasonable case that he did. Gone is the backstop, and in its place a permanent new settlement for Northern Ireland with options to leave the arrangement, something the EU had previously ruled out.

Within minutes of the deal being struck, Johnson and his Conservative Party began tweet-boasting their achievement. “Boris has got a new deal,” read a campaign-ready poster published by the Tory central office. The prime minister himself sent out another message: “Our new deal will get Brexit done and take back control.” Tory members of Parliament were quick to jump on board as well. Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary and Johnson’s leadership rival, wrote: “Fair play Boris. Many doubted it was possible to do this … Bravo.”

Did Johnson actually outmaneuver the EU through force of personality, determination, and a willingness to contemplate what others, chiefly his predecessor Theresa May, would not: Britain’s departure without a deal? And if so, what is one to make of that—or, more important, what is the Continent supposed to make of that? Is the message Europe really wants to send that its opponents should be more Johnson and less May?

Johnson, it is true, achieved more than May, despite—or because of—appearing more unreasonable. He came to power threatening to pull Britain out of the EU without a withdrawal deal and setting the bar for success at a level that seemed impossible to reach (and, in the end, proved to be). And yet he wrestled at least one major concession that had previously not been offered: that Northern Ireland could leave the new arrangement agreed on by both sides, should a majority in its assembly vote to do so. It is a unilateral exit mechanism designed to answer Johnson’s most bitter criticism of the original Irish proposal—that it was anti-democratic. The EU gave ground under pressure, and this may be used as an example by leaders in the future who find themselves in dispute with Brussels.

Still, the bloc did not let go of its key negotiating priority—to ensure that no customs infrastructure was erected on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a separate EU member state. It was a tactical retreat, but the strategy held.

Stand even farther back and while, yes, the EU is undoubtedly weakened by the act of Brexit itself, it cannot reasonably be said to have been structurally weakened by its handling of the United Kingdom’s exit. Speaking with diplomats and officials here in Brussels as well as in London, Dublin, and Belfast, it’s clear that the EU, in its protection of Ireland, has sent a clear message to all its member states, which, barring a handful at most, are global minnows, with histories of neighborly domination—or even annexation: Within the EU, their power is amplified and their interests protected in a way they could not hope for on their own.

For Ireland, one of the most pro-European states in the bloc, it’s a message that has not been lost. In the end, while its leader, Leo Varadkar, made serious concessions to Johnson, it is clear which bit of Ireland is happiest with the outcome. Varadkar himself addressed the point head-on in his remarks at the summit. “I have learned two things,” he said of his experience negotiating. “When the EU acts as one, there is strength, and it is a lesson for the future.” Then he added: “As a small nation, I’ve felt [the] solidarity of other nations. Sometimes small countries feel like they can be swallowed up.”

In his negotiating stance—positive, aggressive, and clear in intent—Johnson achieved more than his critics imagined possible. But that does not mean the EU lost.