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The European Union poured cold water on Boris Johnson’s attempt to renegotiate the Brexit deal, saying the so-called backstop to prevent a hard Irish border -- which the British prime minister wants scrapped -- was a vital part of the divorce agreement.
It means that with just over two months to go until Johnson has said the U.K. will leave the bloc “do or die,” the two sides are completely deadlocked -- with Britain on course to leave on Oct. 31 without the safety net of an agreement and a transition phase to smooth the process.
Still, the EU didn’t reject outright Johnson’s letter to senior European officials setting out his objections to the plan for the Irish border, which will become the U.K.’s new land frontier with the bloc. That indicates there may be room for the two sides to start talking, but only if Johnson can provide more details. The EU has consistently said the backstop isn’t up for renegotiation.
“We welcome the U.K. government’s engagement,” European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told reporters in Brussels. “The letter does not provide a legally operable solution to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland, it does not set out what alternative arrangements could be, and in fact it recognizes that there’s no guarantee that such arrangements will be in place by the end of the transitional period.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU would think about “practical solutions” for the Irish border so the backstop wouldn’t come into force, while signaling it wouldn’t be scrapped from the current deal. The border is an issue for the future relationship rather than the exit agreement, she told a summit of Nordic leaders in Iceland on Tuesday.
“If you want to find these solutions in the future, you can also find them in the short term,” she said. “The EU is ready for that.”
Following the bloc’s response, a spokesman for Johnson said the U.K. was ready to negotiate an alternative to the backstop “in good faith.”
“It is clear that unless the withdrawal agreement is reopened and the backstop abolished there is no prospect of a deal,” the spokesman said. Johnson later told Sky News the EU wouldn’t shift its stance if it looked as though Parliament would block Brexit -- a reference to lawmakers’ pledges to do all they could to prevent a no-deal exit.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney conveyed disappointment at Johnson’s letter to the EU when he spoke to Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay on Tuesday, an Irish foreign ministry spokesman said. Coveney expressed concern at the lack of alternative proposals to the backstop while adding that Ireland is always open to talks continuing between the EU and U.K.
Responding to Johnson’s letter, European Council President Donald Tusk didn’t shut the door on further talks, though he pressed the prime minister to set out what the alternatives to the Irish backstop should be.
Politicians rejecting the backstop and not proposing an alternative plan “in fact support reestablishing a border, even if they don’t admit it,” Tusk said on Twitter.
The backstop, agreed by the British government with the rest of the EU in November, would guarantee no checks or infrastructure on the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by keeping the U.K. closely aligned to the bloc’s customs and trading rules. It’s a central part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement agreed by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, with Brussels -- which was never ratified in the British Parliament.
In his letter, Johnson said he wants to replace the backstop with a “legally binding commitment” not to build infrastructure or carry out checks on the border. He has said that this is the only way the Brexit deal will get the approval of U.K. lawmakers.
Both sides must seek other ways to keep the border free of checks, he said, calling for a commitment “to put in place such arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period,” which could be as early as the end of 2020.
But the prime minister didn’t set out what the arrangements should be, and acknowledged there “will need to be a degree of confidence” about what would happen if they were not “fully in place” at the end of the transition period. That suggests he is prepared to replace the backstop with a different guarantee.
Johnson made the removal of the backstop his key pledge on becoming prime minister last month, and has repeatedly said that if the EU doesn’t comply, the U.K. will leave Oct. 31 without a deal. In a further sign he is sticking to that deadline, his government said Tuesday officials will “stop attending most EU meetings” from Sept. 1 to focus on future ties with the bloc and other nations.
The U.K. leader travels to Berlin and Paris this week to discuss Brexit with Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who has also indicated that the deal isn’t up for discussion.