French President Emmanuel Macron put the ball squarely in Boris Johnson’s court on Thursday (22 August), urging the UK Prime Minister to present detailed proposals to re-write the Irish backstop and avoid the UK crashing out of the bloc without a deal after 31 October.
Macron offered the prospect of a compromise that would avert a no-deal Brexit but warned that any agreement would have to be struck within the next month.
“No one is going to wait until October 31 to find the right solution,” the French president said.
For his part, the UK prime minister repeated that he wanted to avoid a no-deal scenario.
“Of course I want a deal. I think we can get a deal and a good deal,” said Johnson at a joint press conference with Macron.
Johnson has made his first visits to Berlin and Paris in the past 48 hours, after telling European Council President Donald Tusk in a letter on Monday evening that the Irish backstop would have to be scrapped.
The backstop aims to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by keeping the entire island in the EU’s customs union if a new EU-UK trade deal cannot be agreed.
There are concerns that the UK government will seek to drag out the game of political brinksmanship to the final days in the hope that EU negotiators will buckle.
Meanwhile, Macron, perhaps mindful that Johnson is likely to try to pin the blame for a no-deal Brexit on the EU’s refusal to compromise, warned that “if nothing workable was presented, it would mean “that the problem is deeper, more political – a British political problem”.
In this scenario, “it would be up to the prime minister to make a choice,” said Macron.
However, the French President added that any new compromise deal would be very similar to the current Withdrawal Agreement, and the wiggle room on the Irish backstop was very limited.
“The key elements of this agreement, including the Irish backstop, are not just technical constraints or legal quibbling, but indeed genuine, indispensable guarantees to preserve stability in Ireland [and] to preserve the integrity of the single market,” he said.
Although many of Johnson’s team have been encouraged by the ameliorative tone coming from Berlin and Paris, there is concern among some hard Brexiteers at his focus on the Irish backstop rather than on re-opening the entire Withdrawal Agreement.
Both the UK government and a think-tank with close links to the Conservative party have set up working groups to try to produce policies to resolve the border dilemma.
These could include ‘Enhanced Economic Zones’ covering Northern Ireland and the Republic, as well as a ‘transitional adjustment fund’ financed by the UK to support small businesses on both sides of the border and an independent arbitration panel.
However, UK officials concede that the proposals have made little headway with their EU counterparts.
“We haven’t been able to get traction at the right levels in the [European] commission with our report, and with UK officials, to be able to push this down to an operational level to talk about what practically can we do on both sides to deliver the border that we need,” Tony Smith, a former director-general of the UK Border Force and advisor to the Alternative Arrangements Commission, told the BBC on Thursday.
Tusk expects further details during G7 meeting
European Council President Donald Tusk wants further details on UK’s alternative Brexit plan during his meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday (25 August) on the margins of the G7 in Biarritz (France).
The meeting follows Johnson’s letter to Tusk, which asked the EU to replace it by a “commitment” to put in place alternative arrangements before the end of the transition period.
However, the letter does not set out a specific plan that would allow avoiding a hard border on the island after Brexit. Therefore Tusk expects Johnson to come up with further details on the “alternative arrangements,” rather than promises, by the end of the week.
The European Council president, who responded to Johnson by stating that rejecting the backstop was supporting the re-establishment of the border, “will be in listening mode in Biarritz,” an EU source said.
“We have been quite clear and consistent,” the EU official said regarding the position of both institutions and member states in their support to the Irish backstop as an indispensable part of the withdrawal agreement.
The EU says it is open to negotiating potential alternatives, as long as these are in line with the withdrawal agreement, and in the context of the political declaration on the future relationship.
EU to step up preparation for a no-deal
Since he took office in July, Boris Johnson has repeatedly said, both in his contacts with member states and in the media, that the UK will leave the European Union the 31 October, with or without a deal.
As the British government considers an abrupt Brexit as a possible option, “member states have to take the possibility of a no-deal outcome much more seriously than ever before,” EU officials pointed out. No-deal preparedness, they said, is a matter of responsibility.