Downing Street rejects Macron's two-week deadline for Brexit plan
Downing Street has refused to commit to tabling its Brexit plans for replacing the Irish backstop within two weeks, branding it an “artificial deadline” and agreeing only to share informal “non-papers” on its preferred solutions.
A UK government spokesman said it would not recognise France and Finland’s joint request for a deadline of the end of September and would only table firm proposals when Boris Johnson was ready.
Johnson was previously challenged in mid-August by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to come up with a solution within 30 days but the UK has not tabled anything concrete in the last month – with just six weeks to go before the UK is due to leave the EU.
A UK government spokesman said: “We have been having detailed discussions with the commission’s Taskforce 50 in recent weeks. We have now shared in written form a series of confidential technical non-papers which reflect the ideas the UK has been putting forward. We will table formal written solutions when we are ready, not according to an artificial deadline, and when the EU is clear that it will engage constructively on them as a replacement for the backstop.”
Until now, the UK had only formally presented versions of the withdrawal agreement with the backstop scrubbed out, while discussing its ideas informally in meetings.
It has now presented “non-papers” which are a way of floating proposals for discussion without the government committing to any position.
Frustration has been mounting in the EU about the UK’s refusal to disclose its formal position, even though Johnson is still insisting he wants to reach a deal before Brexit is due to happen on 31 October. If no deal is reached, Johnson will be forced by law to request a three-month extension to article 50, although he has maintained he will not do that.
With time running out, Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, said that the “purist” EU would have to “take risks” with the Irish border for a deal to be struck.
As the government announced that he would visit Brussels on Friday to reopen talks with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, Barclay said the European commission had to abandon its position.
Speaking to business leaders in Madrid, he said: “A rigid approach now at this point is no way to progress a deal and the responsibility sits with both sides to find a solution.
“We are committed to carving out a landing zone and we stand ready to share relevant texts. But it must be in the spirit of negotiation with flexibility and with a negotiating partner that itself is willing to compromise.”
He continued: “Great political leaders have always respected the need to take risks. Indeed it was General de Gaulle who said a true statesman is one who is willing to take risks.
“Yet a refusal by the commission to accept any risk would be a failure of statecraft, and put at risk the future relationship of the UK and the EU because of a lack of flexibility, creativity and indeed pragmatism. Leadership requires more than remaining within a safety net.”
On Wednesday, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, told the European parliament he had no “emotional attachment” to the Irish backstop, the protocol in the withdrawal agreement that Boris Johnson wants removed.
But he said he had told the British prime minister during their lunch in Luxembourg on Monday he had “an intimate commitment to its objectives”.
The British government’s version of Brexit involves the UK ultimately leaving the single market and customs union, requiring the return of a range of checks on goods crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The “backstop” is intended as a standstill placeholder to ensure such checks do not have to be imposed between Brexit happening with a deal, and the start of a new free trade agreement yet to be negotiated between the UK and the EU.
Theresa May's withdrawal agreement proposed keeping the whole of the UK in a shared customs territory with the EU during this period. An alternative idea involves only Northern Ireland staying in the EU’s customs territory. That would place a customs border in the Irish Sea. May described it as a threat to the constitutional integrity of the UK, but the new prime minister, Boris Johnson, has opened the current talks by proposing an all-Ireland agri-food zone. The suggestion is that he will seek to quietly build on that with further NI-only arrangements.
Given an NI-only backstop was an EU proposal in the first place, the U-turn would be warmly welcomed in Brussels, although attempts to give the Northern Ireland assembly a veto on its continuation would not be acceptable, and the DUP would be unlikely to support the prime minister in such a move in parliament.
If there is a no-deal Brexit, then there is no backstop.