Boris Johnson has been given until September 30 to submit an alternative to the Irish border backstop in writing to Brussels, or the Brexit talks are “over”, the leaders of France and Finland stated on Wednesday (18 September).
The ultimatum was delivered by French President Emmanuel Macron and Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, following a meeting between the two in Paris.
“If the UK wants to discuss alternatives to the existing Brexit agreement then these must be presented before the end of the month,” Mr Rinne told reporters after the meeting in which the deadline was agreed.
“It is now time for Boris Johnson to produce his own proposals in writing – if they exist. If no proposals are received by the end of September, then it’s over,” said Rinne.
“Loose talk about proposals for negotiations is irresponsible,” he added.
“Something must happen”: Rinne
The deadline, which falls during the Conservative party’s annual conference in Manchester, reflects increasing frustration among EU leaders that despite publicly talking up the prospects of striking a deal, Boris Johnson’s government is running down the clock.
But the hard-line taken by Macron – who initially opposed granting an extension to Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May back in March – and Rinne, does not yet appear to be shared by other EU leaders.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, MEPs voted by a large majority to grant a new extension to the Article 50 talks, if necessary beyond October 31 when the UK is due to leave the bloc, in order to avoid a ‘no deal’ scenario. Some MEPs, including those from Macron’s LREM party, had called for an extension to be accepted only if the UK holds an new referendum or election.
“Something must happen so that extra time can be granted,” said Rinne.
A law passed by UK parliamentarians last week requires Johnson to request an extension ahead of an EU summit on 16-17 October. Johnson, however, says he will not do so and that the UK will leave the EU with or without an agreement at the end of October.
Meeting with Juncker
Following a lunch meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday, UK officials signalled that talks with the EU would take place daily rather than twice a week.
A similarly pessimistic message was on offer from Juncker and chief negotiator Michel Barnier in the European Parliament.
“There is very little time left…the risk of a no-deal is very real,” Juncker told MEPs on Wednesday (18 September), adding that he still believes it was possible to avoid it.
Juncker said his lunch with Johnson in Luxembourg had been “friendly”, but added that the British Prime Minister could not “look you in the eye and tell you progress has been achieved”.
“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 the backstop a “safety net” to avoid a divided Ireland after Brexit.
“But I made clear that I do have an intimate commitment to its objectives.”
“We should not spend time pretending to negotiate,” Barnier warned, telling MEPs that the UK government was still proposing to strike out the section of the Withdrawal Agreement dealing with the backstop, rather than proposing a practical alternative.