BRUSSELS: The European Union is bracing for tough Brexit talks with Britain but will stand firm as Prime Minister Boris Johnson ramps up his “no-deal” threats, diplomats said on Tuesday.
Johnson, who took office late last month, says he wants to leave the EU with a deal but insists the current terms are unacceptable and if necessary Britain will exit on October 31 with no agreement at all.
London insists Brussels must renegotiate key elements of the divorce deal struck last year, and in particular drop the so-called “Irish backstop”. It has stepped up its preparations for a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit.
Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost held talks in Brussels last week that a diplomat said led the EU to conclude there was currently no basis for “meaningful discussions”.
“It is better to be prepared for ‘no deal’, because Boris Johnson is credible on this threat,” a senior diplomat warned after being briefed on last week’s talks. “He will try to play on the fear of ‘no deal’ to try to divide Europeans.
“The question is who’s going to fold first, because Boris Johnson is following a political logic to keep power.” Danuta Huebner, a member of the Brexit group in the European Parliament, said Johnson was trying to create the idea of the “necessity” of no deal. “It is absolutely obvious (that the) no-deal option is a tactic. Sorry to say it will not work,” she wrote.
EU officials insist their position has not changed and Brussels will not reopen the withdrawal agreement struck with Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, which has been rejected three times by British lawmakers Michael Gove, Johnson’s minister in charge of no-deal planning, accused the EU of refusing to negotiate.
“We will put all our energy into making sure that we can secure that good deal but at the moment it is the EU that seems to be saying they are not interested,” he said.
“They are simply saying ‘No, we don’t want to talk’. I think that is wrong and sad. It is not in Europe’s interests.” But Annika Breidthardt, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, insisted that President Jean-Claude Juncker was “available if Boris Johnson wishes to discuss and clarify his position in person or by phone”.
An EU source said Frost had used last week’s meeting to repeat their demand for the backstop to be thrown out.
The “backstop” arrangement is intended to keep open the border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland but critics say it risks keeping Britain tied to Brussels rules long after Brexit.
“This is the precondition stated by Boris Johnson for any discussion, and it is not acceptable to the 27,” the EU source said.
“It is not clear why the union would give Johnson what it refused Theresa May, for whom it had some sympathy,” commented a European diplomat, who predicted that nothing of substance would happen before a G7 meeting at the end of August in Biarritz, southwest France.