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Whose ball is it anyway?

Barbara Wesel
October 10, 2017

So who has the ball right now? An easy enough question to answer in football, but harder on the political playing field - and even more difficult when it comes to Brexit, says Barbara Wesel.

The Brexit Diaries.en

"The ball is in their court," Theresa May tells her parliament in London while pointing accusatorily across the English Channel, beyond which lies the European continent. And where EU Commission speaker Margartisi Schina raises his eyebrow expressively and insists that, on the contrary, "The ball is entirely in the UK court."

Like in the World Cup qualifiers, possession of the ball has somehow started playing a role in Brexit negotiations. But, as we all know, only goals count in the end. But are the teams even playing on the same field? Or is the whole thing actually a table tennis tournament? Perhaps a round of poker where the EU holds all the cards?

Since her coughing fit at the Tory's party conference, May has been fighting to show she's alive. Of course, she could act decisively if she wanted to. She could, for example, fire Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Just theoretically. Maybe she will throw him out after the EU summit in two weeks. But why wait till then?

May outlines 'unique and ambitious' EU partnership

One rarely sees a leading politician so obviously unhappy in her position and yet so desperate to hold on to it. She didn't even read the signs when part of the words on the wall behind her fell down. Which brings up the fact that the slogan, "Building a country that works for everyone," is disturbingly similar to Chancellor Angela Merkel's election slogan, "For a Germany where we live well and gladly."

Neither the silly saying nor the silly "upper limit" on asylum seekers was able to throw off the brilliant power triangulator in Berlin. But in contrast, no one envies Merkel's counterpart in London. May is supposed to deliver a Brexit that somehow avoids both sending the economy crashing to the ground and driving EU haters into a frenzy. Her party colleagues are counting down her days. And Brussels is waiting to see whether the UK will serve the ball in the next 10 days. Or, as an unnamed EU diplomat so aptly said, "We are not here to save the Tory party." And that includes the prime minister. 

Who is David Davis?

At the party conference, Britain's Brexit minister sat in the first row, alongside Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond and May ally Amber Rudd - who had to prod the men next to her with sharp elbows to applaud the struggling prime minister. And David Davis is widely considered an option off the bench for the conservatives.

David Davis
When is David Davis going to show up?Image: Getty Images/C. Court

This Monday in Brussels, however, Davis was not there to continue Brexit talks. The EU negotiatior Michel Barnier had to go it alone. The official excuse was that Davis was busy with other matters, though nobody expected the British minister to have concrete offers ready anyway. It begs the question of what the negotiating teams do when they spend their days in the Commission meeting room. Drink tea and eat biscuits? Do crossword puzzles? Read tweets about Brexit?

Wednesday's talks have already been canceled due to lack of progress in the negotiations. On Thursday, Davis is expected in Brussels for the ritual press conference alongside Barnier. The British minister will say that things are going great. The Frenchman will say that the lack of progress is leaving him dejected. Then the two men will go their separate ways.

Where is he running?

He runs around the block every morning, with his bodyguards alongside him and journalists waiting nearby. They yell questions like: "Boris, when are you going to topple Theresa?" And the foreign secretary doesn't answer, because it is not the right day for it. But Johnson still believes he has a shot at the top spot in British politics, according to insiders. But could someone give him some jogging pants, something discrete in blue or black?

Boris Johnson
Won't anyone get Boris some trousers?Image: Reuters/H. McKay

Trousergate aside, it seems the foreign ministry in London has become a daycare center for difficult children. "Britain trains the best diplomats in the world and puts them to the test by sending them to work for Boris," was a popular joke making the rounds at the Tory party conference.

One of the toughest tests for the skills of British diplomats was the latest statement from Boris regarding Libya. The foreign secretary said the city of Sirte could become "the next Dubai" with the help of British investment. "The only thing they've got to do is clear the dead bodies away and then we will be there," he said.

Rarely has a country been so fixated on the actions of a single politician. It is deeply neurotic. It seems few Tories feel comfortable crossing the street these days without asking Boris first. He is one of those childish, egocentric politicians who come to power when the gods are conspiring against us.

Hard fact number one

First the US slapped tariffs on Canadian airplane manufacturer Bombardier over alleged illegal subsidies — a move that put jobs at the company's Northern Ireland branch in danger. Now Washington is questioning the only real outcome of the Brexit negotiations thus far, regarding how to divide agricultural quotas between the EU and UK. The US has filed an appeal in an attempt to renegotiate a better deal for themselves. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Hard fact number two

The UK's environment secretary, Michael Gove, has demanded Britain pull out of Europe's common fisheries policy immediately after Brexit. Some 65 percent of fish caught by the UK's fishermen are sold to Europe. That has to stop. Because this isn't about cake, as Boris Johnson has always claimed. It's about having all the fish and chips in Britain and eating them too.