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Macron dampens Johnson's plan to renegotiate Brexit

August 22, 2019

The details of the Irish backstop continued to split European leaders as British PM Johnson met French President Macron. Macron called the backstop "indispensable" to a Brexit deal. Johnson said a new deal is possible.

Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson in Paris
Image: Reuters/G. Fuentes

French President Emmanuel Macron put the brakes on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's bid to reopen Brexit negotiations, saying on Thursday that there was not enough time to find a new withdrawal agreement by the October 31 divorce deadline.

Johnson arrived in Paris a day after receiving an apparent minor boost from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who raised the prospect of Britain putting forward another option for the Irish border within 30 days.

Macron told Johnson the Irish backstop was "indispensable" to a Brexit deal and preservation of the EU common market. 

"We have to respect what was negotiated," Macron said at the Elysee Palace, referring to the Brexit deal signed between the EU and Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May.

The Irish backstop is not just about technical issues but about "indispensable guarantees to preserve stability in Ireland, for the integrity of the single market," Macron said.

The backstop, which Johnson opposes, aims to prevent a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland following Brexit. 

Johnson said the UK would not impose checks on the border separating EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, but he insisted that maintaining the EU customs unions and preserving British sovereignty were compatible.

"We think there are ways of protecting the integrity of the single market and allowing the UK to exit from the EU, all and entire and perfect as it were," he said.

Johnson emboldened by Merkel?

Macron said that some movement could be possible and agreed with Merkel that "something clever" could be found in the next 30 days to address the Irish border issue.

"I was always said to be the tough one of the gang," he said, explaining that the reputation came from his making it "very clear" a deal that would endanger the EU would not be acceptable.

Ahead of lunch with Macron on Thursday, Johnson said he was "powerfully encouraged" by his meeting with German Chancellor Merkel on Wednesday.

The head of DW’s Brussels bureau, Max Hofmann, suggested that Johnson felt emboldened by Merkel's suggestion a solution to the Irish backstop issue could be found in 30 days. This ramped up the pressure on Brussels. "Given the history of the border on the island of Ireland, the EU may cave in rather than risk being responsible for violence erupting again on a hard border," he said.

Merkel said Thursday that her suggestion that a Brexit solution could be achieved in 30 days shouldn't be interpreted as a strict deadline. She told reporters during a visit to the Netherlands that "it would be better to say one can achieve that by October 31."

Technical measures

Johnson argued that measures other than a hard border checkpoint could be implemented between Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland, as the border could be replaced by the introduction of technical measures, such as trusted trader provisions and electronic pre-clearance.

But the British prime minister said he was prepared to leave the EU without a deal, arguing that even in that case checks on the Irish border would not be necessary.

"Under no circumstances will the UK be putting checks at the frontier, and we don't think it's necessary from the point of view of the EU to do that to protect the integrity of the single market," Johnson said. "We think there are other ways of doing that."

Experts have said that a no-deal Brexit could cause problems for traders and migrants from both sides.

Johnson said that he wanted to "do all the necessary work, on both sides of the English Channel, to make sure that whether we get an agreement or not our exit is as smooth and as pain-free as possible for citizens and business on both sides."

Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, cautioned about the prospect of replacing the backstop.

"Miracles can never be ruled out, but I am skeptical that something can be plucked out of the air that guarantees Ireland will not have a hard border and that the EU will have control over what comes into the market," Asselborn told German public broadcaster SWR on Thursday.

shs, cw/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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