Four ambassadors from different EU countries have spoken to Sky News under the guise of Chatham House rules (which means the quotes can be made public but not directly attributed) saying that each of them has had separate conversations with Boris Johnson in which he has said that he personally supports the principle of freedom of movement. Sources at the FCO have immediately struck back hard, declaring the whole suggestion that Boris said any of this to be “a total lie”. It seems odd that four separate ambassadors would tell the same story to one news outlet in very similar and corroborating language, but I suppose it is their word against the Foreign Secretary’s.
The interesting thing about all this isn’t the reveal of Boris’ supposed predilection towards European free movement (he said as much in his now infamous Telegraph piece in the days after the referendum result anyhow, so it isn’t really new information), but rather that four ambassadors felt it prudent to contact Sky News on the topic. In other words, they have such deep concerns about the way Boris is handling the pre-Article 50 discussions, they felt the need to warn the British press about it.
We live in an age where diplomatic protocols are breaking down all around us – Donald Trump meeting with Nigel Farage before the Prime Minister being the most profound example of this. Yet even with that in mind, this intervention by the European ambassador quartet is remarkable. In order for the UK-EU negotiations to work in any realistic sense, people on both side of the table need to feel that what they are saying can be kept in confidence. In breaking this, the ambassadors in question have let it be known that they believe the British are already operating in such bad faith, there is no need to even try and keep the whole thing on course.
This bodes very, very badly for the negotiations between the UK and the EU, which, let’s be frank here, were not off to the rosiest of starts anyhow. The hostility on both sides is now getting out of hand – with real potential for terrible results for both parties. The EU believes the UK is being belligerent unnecessarily, as well as the relevant ministers seeming to be wildly unprepared for what is ahead (while it is completely unsubstantiated and may well be apocryphal, the story about David Davis having to ask what the Customs Union in fact was while sat in a meeting at least says a lot about how the EU thinks this is all going so far). The UK think the EU is being a stroppy child, saying it will not talk about conditions before Article 50 is triggered – and then watching as European politicians talk to the press to talk about how brutally slapped the UK will be, all in a transparent effort to appeal to local continental constituencies.
So my reaction to the Boris freedom of movement story can be summarised thus: uh oh. Is it really that bad already?