Never has the surface area of a conference room in Luxembourg caused such a diplomatic row.

Britain’s politicians and media are shouting about a “stitch-up” after a surreal outdoor press conference featured Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel standing next to an empty podium where his British opposite number Boris Johnson was meant to be. The Grand Duchy’s apparent lack of office space big enough to host the world’s media meant the event had to happen outside, but Johnson’s apparent unwillingness to try to speak above the noise of Brexit protesters made that a deal-breaker. The result was the Incredible Hulk (Johnson’s memorable self-description) turning into the Invisible Man, allowing Bettel to steal the show.

Politicians in Johnson’s Conservative Party seized on this as more proof of the EU belittling the U.K.’s democratic choice to quit the bloc — and doubled down on their commitment to leave by Oct. 31 “do or die.” That the humiliation was delivered by tiny Luxembourg, the diplomatic equivalent of the superhero Ant-Man, only added to the fury. 

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The Duchy is one of the EU’s least populous countries and depends heavily on the flow of financial services from other countries for its prosperity. As a member of the EU Council of leaders, though, Bettel has a casting vote on Britain’s fate. That gives him a pulpit from which to project power. Monday’s performance was opportunistic, but legitimate: National politicians, not Brussels bureaucrats, are the ones who will make the ultimate decisions on Brexit (and hence on Johnson’s own fate).

And Europe’s leaders are clearly getting frustrated with the British prime minister’s antics. For all the talk of Luxembourg overplaying its hand, Bettel’s talking points sounded like a synthesis of the positions of 27 EU member states, which are starting to take shape ahead of October’s crucial meeting of the EU Council.

Asked whether he would grant an extension to the official Brexit deadline, which is what the U.K. Parliament is forcing Johnson to ask for, Bettel said he wouldn’t be prepared to do so without good reason. This echoes the tough line laid down recently by France, Spain and the Netherlands. Finland, which holds the EU’s presidency, is similarly minded. Telegraphing a unified position among member states is productive. It’s not just a PR stunt for a small nation.

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This strategy puts the screws on Johnson by highlighting the lack of negotiating progress, and making sure that he shares the blame for it.

The most significant Brexit development in Luxembourg that day didn’t happen at the podium, but at Le Bouquet Garni restaurant where Bettel’s countryman — European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker — lunched with Johnson and the chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. There was an agreement to step up talks to find a deal, with meetings taking place daily to find a solution that doesn’t involve a hard border returning to Ireland. Bettel’s call for Johnson to “act” with concrete proposals ratchets up the pressure too.

Brexit theatrics on their own won’t take Europe anywhere productive. A no-deal scenario is neither side’s preferred option, at least officially, but Johnson has promised his Brexiter supporters that he will exit the EU by Halloween “come what may” and Europe’s leaders have hammered home repeatedly their readiness for a worst-case scenario. While these are negotiating positions as both sides try to secure the best Brexit deal possible for themselves, there is the chance they will indeed lead to no deal.

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Still, at least the empty-podium debacle keeps the spotlight on Johnson’s lack of productive proposals, while making clear that the EU states won’t succumb to U.K. efforts to divide them. Even the smallest countries are getting a chance to outplay the Brits.

To contact the author of this story: Lionel Laurent at llaurent2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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