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No Brexit breakthrough as Johnson meets Juncker

September 16, 2019

Salmon, snails, and the Irish backstop were on the menu for the UK prime minister and European Commission president. But a day of deadlock ended ignominously for Boris Johnson.

Jean-Claude Juncker with Boris Johnson
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Seco

Britain has still not proposed any workable alternatives to the Northern Ireland "backstop" within the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the EU said on Monday. 

The comments came after talks between European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Read more: Brexit: Does Boris Johnson's track record explain the man?

"President Juncker underlined the commission's continued willingness and openness to examine whether such proposals meet the objectives of the backstop. Such proposals have not yet been made," a statement from the European Commission said. It added that the talks had been a chance to "take stock" of ongoing expert-level talks and "discuss the next steps."

Johnson's office said that political-level talks to come up with a workable withdrawal agreement would be stepped up. 

"The leaders agreed that the discussions needed to intensify and that meetings would soon take place on a daily basis," a spokesman said. "It was agreed that talks should also take place at a political level between Michel Barnier and the Brexit Secretary, and conversations would also continue between President Juncker and the prime minister."

An empty podium

Later, Johnson told reporters in Luxembourg that the outlines of a deal were appearing but that hard work needed to be done to make it concrete.

"Yes, there is a good chance of a deal; yes, I can see the shape of it; everybody can see roughly what could be done," he said, adding: "It isn't necessarily in the bag; there will be hard work to be done."

 "But it will require movement and it will require the system by which the EU can control the UK after we leave, the so-called backstop, to go," he said.  "If we can get that done, we're at the races."  

Johnson, however, skipped a joint conference with his Luxembourg counterpart, Xavier Bettel, leaving the latter to speak to an empty podium where the British prime minister was meant to have stood.

"The time is ticking. So stop speaking and act," Bettel told the absent Johnson, who decided not to take part because of a noisy anti-Brexit demonstration nearby.

European lunch

Having on Sunday alluded to Brexit as similar to an escape by fictional superhero the Hulk, Johnson and Juncker met over a lunch of snails, salmon and cheese. 

Downing Street has billed the visit as part of Johnson's efforts to reach a deal ahead of an EU summit on October 17. However, Brussels has played down talk of any progress, claiming that Britain has yet to suggest legally operable changes to a previous withdrawal accord.

Read more: Brexit — Boris Johnson's opponents unite in wake of Parliament shutdown

The UK prime minister has said he would rather be "dead in a ditch" than ask Brussels to postpone Brexit, which is set to take place — for a third time — on October 31. 

But Johnson has said also he needs the EU to scrap the so-called Northern Irish backstop from the withdrawal agreement.

However, any altered agreement would also require the support of the other 27 EU leaders and the European Parliament if the UK is to avoid leaving without a deal.

Northern Ireland: Rocky road to Brexit

Critics at home and abroad

The European Union's chief negotiator Michel Barnier was set to join the two leaders, but has said he has "no reason to be optimistic."

Barnier is set to address the European Parliament on Wednesday to urge MEPs to reaffirm and strengthen their resolve that the backstop must stay.

Johnson's strategy also has critics at home, with rebel and opposition lawmakers last week passing a law that would force Johnson to seek a Brexit delay.

Meanwhile, the UK's Supreme Court is due to meet from Tuesday to decide on the legality of Johnson's decision to prorogue — or suspend — parliament and limit the time lawmakers have to debate Brexit.

Late last week, former British Prime Minister David Cameron criticized Johnson's Brexit policy, and said he had behaved appallingly during the UK's 2016 referendum on membership of the EU.

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Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.