Saturday

21st Sep 2019

EU plays good cop/bad cop on Brexit

  • There was not a 'cigarette paper' standing between the positions of France and Germany, a French official said (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Germany has said the EU could renegotiate the Brexit deal, but France is taking a harder line with Britain's new prime minister.

The prospect of a renegotiation came from German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin during the British leader, Boris Johnson's, first visit there on Wednesday (21 August).

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Johnson has rejected the old deal on grounds it would keep the UK tied to the EU on customs in order to maintain an open border in Ireland.

The EU had said as recently as Tuesday that the Irish plan, called the "backstop", could not be changed.

But Merkel said that if Johnson invented a way to keep an open border and leave the EU customs union in the next 30 days then his solution could be used in a new withdrawal treaty.

"The backstop has always been a fall-back option until this issue [the Irish border] is solved. It was said we will probably find a solution in two years. But we could also find one in the next 30 days, why not?", she said.

The EU would need "absolute clarity" on the UK proposal, she added.

And Germany was "prepared" for a no-deal Brexit on 31 October if Johnson failed to solve the stalemate, she also warned.

"You have set a very blistering timetable of 30 days - if I understood you correctly, I am more than happy with that," Johnson replied.

"You rightly say the onus is on us [Britain] to produce those solutions, those ideas ... and that is what we want to do," he said.

"Wir schaffen das [We'll manage]," he added, repeating Merkel's old slogan.

When asked what his solution might be, the British leader mentioned old ideas which the EU had earlier found fault with, however.

"You'll have heard them before, whether it is trusted trader schemes or electronic pre-clearing. All those types of solutions and more besides," he said.

French message

And the message from France was less friendly, as Johnson prepared to meet French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Thursday on the second leg of his EU tour.

"Renegotiation of the terms currently proposed by the British is not an option," Macron told press on Wednesday.

Brexit was an "internal" British crisis, he said.

And it risked instability in Northern Ireland and UK "vassalage" to the US if Johnson mishandled the situation, he added.

"Many lied about how it [Brexit] would be done, and democracy [British MPs] couldn't find a majority to apply what people decided. It's unheard of, but that's what we've got. We have to help the British deal with this internal democratic crisis, but we mustn't be held hostage by it," Macron said.

"There was war in this part of Europe until recently and those who play with that forget history too fast," he said on Northern Ireland.

The US has said it would help the UK on trade in a no-deal Brexit, but Macron warned that a US bailout would come at a price.

"Can the cost for Britain of a hard Brexit - because Britain will be the main victim - be offset by the United States of America? No. And even if it were a strategic choice, it would be at the cost of a historic vassalisation of Britain," he said.

Pessimism

Whether Johnson pulls a rabbit out of a hat in 30 days remains to be seen.

But Macron's pessimism was echoed in other quarters in Europe.

"All variations" of the Irish border solution had already been discussed to no avail, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Berlin also on Wednesday.

"I therefore think it unlikely that negotiations [on the backstop] will get off the ground," he said.

The European Commission and the EU Council struck a similar tone in an internal memo circulated to the 27 other EU states' embassies in Brussels and seen by the Associated Press news agency.

They urged the EU-27 not to renegotiate the old Brexit deal and said Johnson's public claims on Ireland were "incorrect".

His "suggestion that two separate legal, political, economic, and monetary jurisdictions [Ireland and Northern Ireland] ... [could] be managed with an open border [was] misleading," the EU institutions noted.

Despite Merkel's friendly words, there was not a "cigarette paper" between the real positions of France, Germany, and other EU states, a French official told British media.

Juncker: No-deal Brexit 'palpable'

EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he is not emotionally attached to the Irish backstop, but workable solutions are required to keep the peace on the island.

UK: light goes out in House of Commons

British MPs again rejected Boris Johnson's call for an early election, as the parliament began its five-week suspension period. The prime minister said he would refuse to ask for a Brexit delay - despite the law demanding it.

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