The risk of a no-deal Brexit remains “very real”, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday (18 September) but said he is prepared to work “day in day out, morning until night” to strike a deal.
At the same time, EU lawmakers backed a resolution calling for the UK to be granted another extension, after the current one expires on 31 October, to allow more time for London to agree the terms of its withdrawal.
The resolution, passed by a hefty 544 to 126 majority, states that MEPs are open to an extension, though Parliament President David Sassoli said this could only be if the UK held an election or a referendum.
It also states that if there is a no-deal departure, that will be entirely the responsibility of the United Kingdom. This language can be interpreted as a retort to UK politicians who have accused the EU of being intransigent and unwilling to compromise in the negotiations.
Addressing the European Parliament, Juncker said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had told him during their Luxembourg lunch on Monday that London still wanted a transition deal, but that he would leave with or without an agreement on 31 October.
Juncker earlier on Tuesday told his College of Commissioners that the Luxembourg lunch was probably the first time “Boris Johnson understood the meaning of the single market”.
“There is very little time left…the risk of a no-deal is very real,” Juncker told MEPs, adding that he still believes it is still possible to avoid it.
“Our unity is our greatest asset, it will drive us through the debates of next week, and it will continue to define this house in the many years to come,” he told MEPs.
“I am not emotionally attached to the Irish backstop,” Juncker said. “I have asked the Prime Minister to make, in writing, alternatives,” he said, calling it a “safety net” to avoid a divided Ireland after Brexit.
Juncker repeated his previous statements, saying London must present realistic proposals to replace the Irish backstop arrangement in their Britain-EU divorce deal, and until that happens “there will be no real progress”.
His pessimistic tone was echoed by Finland’s EU affairs minister, Tytti Tuppurainen, who spoke for the EU’s rotating presidency, saying a no-deal Brexit “is a quite likely outcome.”
Their comments were echoed by the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, who said that a no-deal Brexit would also not resolve many of the issues around the rights of EU citizens, the Irish border and British obligations under the bloc’s long-term budget.
“We should not spend time pretending to negotiate,” he warned, telling MEPs that even last week the UK government only offered had complaints about the Irish backstop instead offering practical alternatives.
“We don’t want to go back to a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, we want to protect the provisions of Good Friday Agreement fully and we want to protect the integrity of our single market.”
“If the UK leaves without a deal, all these questions will not disappear – they are still be there and need to be settled prior to a future relationship with the UK,” Barnier told EU lawmakers.
In the debate that followed, MEPs seemed weary at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit after 31 October.
Though there were plenty of empty seats in the chamber, pro-Brexit lawmakers were present in full force and cheered and applauded the mention of Brexit.
The European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, said the backstop or any form of “safety net” would be demanded by MEPs in order to avoid violence returning to the Irish border.
“There has not been one legally feasible alternative put on the table by the UK government,” Verhofstadt told MEPs.
Verhofstadt and other MEPs also referred to the risks facing EU citizens and their legal status post-Brexit, calling for the UK authorities to automatically register EU citizens. Around 3 million EU nationals in the UK are still in limbo over whether they will obtain settled status in the UK.
“At the moment it is not Britain leaving the EU, but jobs and businesses leaving Britain,” European People’s Party (EPP) leader Manfred Weber said to jeers from the Brexit party.
EU leaders will reconvene in Brussels on 16-17 October for the next European Council summit where it will be the last chance for London to strike a deal in time for an 31 October exit.
The European Parliament has to approve any Brexit deal agreed between the EU and Britain for it to take effect.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]