French president Emmanuel Macron has cast doubt on Boris Johnson’s talk of a Brexit deal before the October 31 deadline, saying any renegotiation of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement would leave it little changed from the original.
“Of course I want a deal and think we can get a deal and a good deal,” the UK prime minister said at the Elysée palace in Paris before a working lunch with Mr Macron.
Mr Johnson said he was “powerfully encouraged” by his meeting on Wednesday with German chancellor Angela Merkel. She expressed hope that the UK and the EU could “find a solution in the next 30 days” on the key issue in the agreement of the Irish backstop, an insurance policy to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Mr Macron was less optimistic, agreeing that the two sides should be able to find “something intelligent in 30 days if there is goodwill on all sides” but only if the changes did not affect the EU’s key demands on Ireland and the single European market.
“In the coming month we are not going to find a new withdrawal agreement that is far from the original,” Mr Macron said. “If there are things in the framework of what was negotiated by [EU chief negotiator] Michel Barnier that can be adapted and conform with the two objectives I mentioned — stability in Ireland and integrity of the single market — we should find it in the coming month.
“If not, it means the problem is deeper, it’s political, it’s a British political problem and at that point it’s not a negotiation that can solve it — it’s a political choice that the prime minister [Mr Johnson] will have to make. It’s not up to us.”
Mr Johnson reiterated that the UK would not impose any controls on the frontier between Ireland, an EU member state, and the UK region of Northern Ireland, as well as expressing confidence that technical means could be found to manage trade without border checks. “I think that the technical solutions are readily available,” he said, without giving details.
France and other EU members, in contrast, have said border controls are unavoidable in the absence of a deal because the UK would no longer be part of the EU.
In the French government, Mr Johnson’s hardline stand is seen as a “Trumpian” attempt to present himself to British voters as a decisive nationalist distinct from his unsuccessful predecessor Theresa May, rather than a genuine effort to wrest concessions he knows will not be forthcoming from the EU.
“The Europeans see in this absurd pretence of bargaining only a political manoeuvre aiming to make them carry the can for the failure of negotiations,” the rightwing newspaper Le Figaro said in a front-page editorial headlined “The Merchant of the Thames” on Thursday.
“But ‘BoJo’ thinks that the fear of the economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit — albeit disastrous for the British themselves and for which he claims to be ‘seriously’ prepared — will make them yield. He is wrong,” it added, using a common nickname for Mr Johnson.
A senior EU official said European leaders “expect details” from Mr Johnson about how to replace the backstop arrangements or talks would go nowhere at the G7 summit to be hosted by Mr Macron in Biarritz, south-west France, at the weekend. Donald Tusk, the European Council president who will represent the EU, will meet Mr Johnson at the summit.
The official said there was now “concern” following Mr Johnson’s visit to Berlin that “we may have to wait at least 30 days to get some detailed plans from London . . . We are looking forward to new facts and new workable ideas.”
A no-deal Brexit was now the “working assumption” of the bloc, given the UK government’s determination to leave the EU on October 31, the official said. “We have to prepare for the worst possible outcome, which is still likely if you listen to the prime minister.”