Boris Johnson frustrates EU with dearth of fresh Brexit detail
EU chiefs said they heard no fresh proposals from Boris Johnson after a high-profile visit to Luxembourg ended with an abandoned press conference and an extraordinary public reprimand from the country’s leader, Xavier Bettel.
Mr Johnson, the UK prime minister, headed to Luxembourg for talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Mr Bettel on Monday hoping he would advance his renegotiation of Britain’s Brexit deal.
Instead, Brussels said the UK prime minister had brought no fresh proposals to the table, while a visibly angry Mr Bettel chastised the Conservative government for trying to blame the EU “for the mess we are in at the moment”.
The comments underline the EU’s mounting frustration at the gap between Mr Johnson’s claims of progress in the negotiations and the impasse over how to prevent a hard Irish border after Brexit.
They also reflect the EU’s determination to push back against claims by Mr Johnson, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab and others that the EU is seeking to impose unfair conditions on Britain.
“We did not decide to organise Brexit, it is a unilateral decision of the UK government,” Mr Bettel said, noting that the bloc had agreed a 585-page withdrawal treaty with Mr Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May.
For his part, Mr Johnson later argued the meeting had left him a “little bit” more optimistic than when he started the day, while adding: “clearly it's going to take some work.”
Mr Johnson flew to the grand duchy declaring he passionately believed the UK could still strike a revised deal with Brussels and quit the bloc on October 31.
While the UK side was not aiming to present a detailed new blueprint to Mr Juncker, the EU had been hoping to get a clearer idea of how Mr Johnson was planning to revise the withdrawal agreement.
Mr Johnson and Mr Juncker met over a lunch of butter-roasted pollock and creamy risotto to discuss UK plans to scrap the so-called backstop designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland and strike a new exit agreement in time for Britain’s planned departure date of October 31.
The meeting between the two men was described as good-humoured, but Brussels was surprised by the lack of detail put forward by Mr Johnson. Mr Juncker underlined the EU’s continued willingness to examine new proposals that meet the objectives of the backstop, but the commission said in a statement issued after the lunch that “such proposals have not yet been made”.
Mr Johnson’s subsequent meeting with the Luxembourg prime minister degenerated into a public relations fiasco. The UK abandoned plans for an outdoor press conference and Mr Johnson was instead led to a waiting car, amid boos and jeers from a crowd that included British pro-EU expats who had gathered outside Mr Bettel’s office.
Mr Johnson’s aides said the noisy protests had made it impossible to hold a press conference and that the British prime minister had suggested it should take place inside instead — a request that was denied by Mr Bettel’s team on the grounds that there would not have been enough room for all the journalists.
After seeing Mr Johnson out, Mr Bettel returned to address the media alone. Gesturing at one point to the empty podium next to him, Mr Bettel said it was for the UK prime minister to come forward with proposals, and that with the Brexit deadline just six weeks away, people needed to understand the shape of Britain’s future relations with the rest of the EU.
“We need more than just words, we need a legally operational text to work on as soon as possible,” he said, adding that EU and UK citizens “need clarity” and should not be held “hostage for party political gains”.
Mr Bettel has been one of the most outspoken EU leaders in criticising Brexit, often expressing sympathy for Boris Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May while lambasting the Conservative party and the state of British politics in general.
A close political ally of French president Emmanuel Macron — who he visits on Tuesday — Mr Bettel has summarised the Brexit process as: “before they were in with a lot of opt-outs, now they are out and want a lot of opt-ins.”
He has also described Mrs May’s failed attempts to secure backing for her exit deal as “like waiting for Godot.”
Supporters of Mr Johnson insisted he was not angry about the apparent humiliation, saying it was “important to meet some of the significant figures in EU politics”.
“There was clearly going to be a lot of noise,” he told the BBC in an interview.
Privately, however, Mr Johnson’s team were frustrated by the incident, which is likely to play into a Eurosceptic narrative that other European leaders are intent on humiliating Britain over Brexit.
Tory Eurosceptic MP Andrew Bridgen said: “The EU are repeating the mistakes of the past, encouraged by the antics of a Remain dominated parliament. They are misjudging the resolve of the British people and Boris Johnson to leave the EU with or without a deal on October 31.”
With the UK vowing to step up the pace of meetings with EU representatives, Mr Johnson added: “I think there's perhaps an even greater willingness on the part of the commission to engage than I had thought.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said that negotiations “would soon take place on a daily basis”, with increased contacts also between Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
The prime minister said he was determined that Britain would leave the EU on October 31 with or without a deal, while refusing repeatedly to explain how he would surmount the legal and political obstacles placed in his way by parliament.
“I see no point whatever in staying on in the EU beyond October 31 and we’re going to come out,” Mr Johnson told the BBC. “And actually that is what our friends and partners in the EU would like too. And I think that they’ve had a belly full of all this stuff.”
Despite the EU’s criticism of the lack of detail provided by the UK, Mr Johnson did suggest the broad parameters of a British offer to replace the backstop, which would see Northern Ireland continue to apply EU rules in some areas provided a reconvened Stormont assembly gave its approval.
He also continued to talk about carrying out checks “away from the border”, but the EU remains highly sceptical about whether the British proposals come close to addressing the complexity of keeping a fully open border in Ireland.
Sam Fleming y Jim Brunsden