Brexit: How Boris Johnson’s dinner went cold


Wednesday night’s Brexit dinner – a dinner that descended into a deadlock that threatens to tip Britain towards No Deal – had actually started with a joke.

As Boris Johnson spotted the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier approaching, he attempted to break the ice with a moment of humour.

Smiling and pointing a finger at him, he declared: ‘You gave me Covid!’ – a reference to media claims earlier this year that Mr Barnier had been the source of the outbreak in No 10 that put the Prime Minister in intensive care.

Mr Barnier, not known for his sense of humour, responded in kind for once, smiling at the PM and replying: ‘No, you gave it to me.’ It turned out to be the most the British team would get out of the taciturn Frenchman all night. 

Boris Johnson with Ursula von Der Leyen and Michel Barnier after their dinner at the European Commission in Brussels

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament President David Sassoli chat at the start of a two days face-to-face EU summit in Brussels

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament President David Sassoli chat at the start of a two days face-to-face EU summit in Brussels

Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meet on trade deals in Brussels

Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meet on trade deals in Brussels

We face an EU travel ban from January 1 

British travellers would be barred from entering the EU on holidays from January 1, Brussels warned last night.

It emerged yesterday that UK citizens will no longer automatically qualify for unrestricted travel in the bloc under coronavirus rules once the Brexit transition period ends.

Unless the European Commission or individual member states make an exemption, Britons will only be allowed into the continent to make essential trips.

EU countries were facing pressure to form their own travel corridors with the UK.

‘I cannot believe that EU countries who rely on the spending power of UK business and leisure travellers will seek to block entry after January 1,’ said Paul Charles of travel consultancy the PC Agency. ‘Cool heads need to prevail as travel and tourism is such a key contributor to economic growth in Europe.’

The issue exists because the UK will no longer be part of the EU’s free movement rules after January 1. Just a small number of countries with low Covid-19 rates are exempt from rules that bar non-essential visitors from outside the EU and European Economic Area.

These include Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. An EU Commission spokesman said there were no plans to add the UK.

Travel trade group Abta said: ‘The EU has sought to adopt a common approach, but this is only a recommendation and individual countries are able to implement their own measures.’ Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘Covid restrictions will depend on the combination of what the EU decides, but also member states.’

The backdrop to the meeting had not been encouraging. The PM had already had two lengthy conversations with the European Commission chief Ursula Von der Leyen in the previous week, which had proved largely fruitless.

The Commission ran the Union flag up the pole outside its Berlaymont headquarters in Brussels in honour of Mr Johnson’s visit – the first time it had been raised since the UK left on January 31.

But sharp-eyed observers noted the flag was upside down – a method traditionally used to signal distress. 

And when the PM tried to approach Mrs Von der Leyen ahead of the pre-dinner photo call, she gestured him away, saying: ‘Keep [your] distance’, because of the tight Covid rules in Brussels.

The two leaders briefly removed their face masks for the cameras, but the former German defence minister instructed the PM to put his back on immediately, prompting him to observe: ‘You run a tight ship here Ursula – and quite right too.’

Some in the UK team also suspected the EU were trolling them with a dinner menu dominated by fish – one of the most contentious issues of the entire talks. 

The three-course dinner finished with a pavlova – an Australian dish that appeared to be a nod to the PM’s description of No Deal as the Australian option.

Mr Johnson had expected a passionate exchange, with the two sides contributing fresh ideas to break the deadlock. But as he and chief negotiator David Frost set out the British position over a dinner of scallops and steamed turbot, they met only a muted reaction.

‘It was a weird atmosphere,’ said one source. ‘They just sat and listened and didn’t really engage. It was frustrating – we were looking for creativity and we got very little back… when they did engage they were in transmit mode, just telling us their positions which we have been round many times.’

In a rare intervention, a senior EU official suggested the EU and UK were ‘like twins’, adding: ‘If we decide to have a haircut then you are going to have a haircut. If we decide to buy an expensive handbag then the UK has to buy an expensive handbag too.

The UK side were baffled. ‘They still didn’t seem to grasp the fundamental point that we are leaving to regain our independence,’ said one source.

Despite clear signals from the PM that he was ready to walk away, the EU’s top officials appear to have thought he had travelled to Brussels to capitulate. 

Boris Johnson meets with Ursula von Der Leyen at the European Commission in Brussels to continue with Brexit talks

Boris Johnson meets with Ursula von Der Leyen at the European Commission in Brussels to continue with Brexit talks

Two rostrums are set up for a possible joint statement at the end of a meeting of Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on a post-Brexit trade deal, in Brussels

Two rostrums are set up for a possible joint statement at the end of a meeting of Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on a post-Brexit trade deal, in Brussels

When they emerged from the meeting it became clear another opportunity for progress had been missed. Although talks would continue, there was no new mandate.

And a deadline was set for Sunday to decide whether the talks were worth continuing at all. British officials described the discussions as ‘frank’ – diplomatic code for a disagreement.

With Brussels restaurants shut because of lockdown the dinner took place in Mrs Von der Leyen’s offices on the 13th floor of the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters. As a young journalist in Brussels, Mr Johnson once wrongly wrote that the vast building, known to Eurosceptics as the Death Star, was set to be demolished.

He misjudged the EU on that occasion. This time, it appeared the EU may have misjudged him. 

SIMON WALTERS: This is a huge Brexit gamble that Boris can’t avoid to dodge 

By Simon Walters for the Daily Mail 

Until last night, it was tempting to think that the acrimonious fallout from Boris Johnson’s dinner with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels was entirely stage-managed.

That it is all part of a carefully choreographed diplomatic dance which allows each side to prove to their respective supporters that they have fought tooth and nail to win concessions from each other.

That, despite all the fevered intransigence, the pair will actually soon emerge waving a piece of paper that both claim is a triumph of negotiation and compromise, and that their side got the best deal.

That, in essence, a Brexit trade deal will be produced like a rabbit out of a hat. Boris and Ursula would meet again, do a Covid-secure elbow bump, smile for the cameras, and – voila – a Brexit deal is done.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels

But any prospect of that suffered a twin blow last night.

Mrs von der Leyen fired the first shot by provocatively publishing the EU’s No Deal contingency plans.

They included a demand for French trawlermen to be allowed to carry on plundering British waters. All the UK would get in return is a derisory six months of lorries and air links running freely.

With the ball in his court, Mr Johnson responded by ramping up his own No Deal rhetoric. In his first public comments since Wednesday night’s dinner, he pointedly compared the EU’s demand that the UK copies any of the bloc’s future law changes to two twins being forced to have the same haircut, or British women being forced to pay more for handbags if the price was raised in Europe.

The trade deal on the table from Brussels was ‘no good’, Mr Johnson harrumphed. The UK would be ‘locked in’ the EU’s orbit for ever.

Doubtless the immaculately coiffed and accoutred Mrs von der Leyen will have taken note.

Certainly it marked a significant shift in tone from the pair’s polite mediation over scallops and turbot the previous day.

But in many ways, Mr Johnson’s bold statement of intent last night – that Britain should prepare for No Deal – was not too surprising. He has never been scared to take a gamble on the European Union.

He took a risk with his last-minute decision to back Brexit in the 2016 referendum; again by claiming he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than not leave by October 31 last year; then by expelling 21 Tory MPs for trying to block Brexit; and finally by calling a Christmas election to ‘get Brexit done’.

On each occasion, most pundits said he was being foolish.

They were wrong. He won an 80-seat Commons majority and he did get Brexit done.

In the eyes of most – certainly those who voted for him – Boris did what he said he would do, unlike most politicians.

Boris Johnson arrives back at the British embassy tonight after his three-hour dinner with Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels

Boris Johnson arrives back at the British embassy tonight after his three-hour dinner with Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels 

Of course, there will be some EU observers who, watching Mr Johnson last night, despairingly claim that 98 per cent of the trade deal is already done. In their eyes, all that is left – fishing rights, the so-called ‘level playing field’ and a disputes procedure – amounts to a mere 2 per cent.

But yesterday’s war of words suggests it is the other way round.

As the Prime Minister said forcefully in the Commons on Wednesday, Brexit is about ‘sovereignty’, a highly emotive word that cannot be ignored.

For make no mistake: if we do not win back control of the waters around our coast, many Brexiteers will start to wonder why we don’t just replace the Union flag above No 10 with the blue and gold EU banner.

Already hardline pro-Brexit Tory MPs are on standby to denounce Mr Johnson, a one-time Churchill biographer, as a latter-day Neville Chamberlain if he gives more than an inch.

Moreover, Brexit is also an issue of ‘sovereignty’ for the EU, which has become a ‘sovereign’ super-state in all but name and now feels a threat to its unity.

Yet despite his punchy statement last night, Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen will be fully aware that both a deal and No Deal outcome are fraught with danger for the PM.

Give away too much to get a deal and Brexiteer Tory MPs may challenge his leadership. Give away nothing and go for No Deal, and risk more disruption when the UK is reeling from the economic carnage wreaked by Covid.

However, some Conservative MPs argue in private that the pandemic’s devastating impact on our finances actually strengthens the case for No Deal.

An ex-minister who is one of Mr Johnson’s most high-profile supporters told me bluntly: ‘The economic hit caused by Covid throughout Europe will be so great that it will be impossible to calculate whether Brexit has had a positive or negative effect on the economy if there is No Deal.’

Yet surely the Prime Minister isn’t so cynical as to contemplate such a calculation?

Whatever the truth, the one thing that Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen agreed on over their seafood supper was that they would both reach a final decision by Sunday.

Mr Johnson won the Tory leadership contest last year after telling his party that Brexit had to be sorted out once and for all. ‘Kick the can again and we kick the bucket, my friends, that’s the sad reality,’ he said.

After last night’s bold salvo, that statement is even more true today.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk