No-deal Brexit will be fault of UK government alone, says Juncker

No-deal Brexit will be fault of UK government alone, says Juncker

Both sides still far apart over Irish border while Commons hostility dismays EU

Jean-Claude Juncker has said blame for a no-deal Brexit will lie solely with the British government after the UK’s latest efforts to fix the problem of the Irish border were found wanting.

Ahead of a second visit to Brussels within as many weeks by the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, the European commission president emphasised the EU’s desire for a mutually satisfactory agreement.

“We are working hard on a deal,” Juncker told the German newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine. “An exit of the British from the EU without agreement would be a disaster for the United Kingdom and for the European continent. Our chief negotiator Michel Barnier and I are doing everything we can to reach an agreement. If this fails in the end, the responsibility lies solely with the British side.”

The two negotiating sides are wide apart on the fundamentals of how to deal with the problem of the Irish border, and there is growing and grave scepticism that the government will be able to produce anything reasonable for leaders to sign off on at a crunch summit on 17 October.

The UK has insisted that Northern Ireland cannot be “left behind” in the EU’s single market and shared customs territory, nor can the whole of the UK be “trapped” in the bloc’s structures simply to avoid a hard border.

Barclay emphasised in a recent speech in Madrid that any deal must recognise that there will be two regulatory zones on the island of Ireland. The government insists that controls and checks on trade through the border can be done in a light-touch way to ensure there is no infrastructure or huge changes to the local economy.

The EU has said that, as yet, there does not appear to be any solution beyond Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland remaining in regulatory alignment. “What they are proposing is for us to ignore huge blocks of EU law – make massive derogations for them,” a source said. “It doesn’t work.”

On the eve of his meeting with Barclay, Barnier told EU ambassadors that the proposals so far tabled by the UK were not workable. He reiterated that time was running out, adding in an aside that the dramatic scenes in Westminster did not offer much confidence that a majority for any deal could be found.

“But the biggest obstacle to a deal remains the absence until now of serious, workable proposals,” a source said.

Several EU diplomats told Barnier that the UK would have to table “serious” plans to replace the Irish backstop by the end of next week – immediately after the Conservative party conference in Manchester.

“The clock is ticking, after that, time would be in too short supply,” an EU diplomat said.

But the person added that the mood around the table was “highly sceptical” that it will be possible to agree a deal, also because of the “political situation” in London.

If the UK fails to produce proposals within the next seven days, EU diplomats say their governments will not have enough time to assess the politically sensitive and deeply technical issues at stake.

The pessimistic mood deepened after the UK presented earlier this week its latest discussion paper on breaking the backstop deadlock - a six-page document on moving food, animal and plant products between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as part of a plan for an all-Ireland agri food zone.

EU diplomats are unhappy that the UK seems to be picking holes in the logic of the EU’s strict rules on food, animal and plant safety (sanitary and phytosanitary measures). “If you are staying in our SPS zone you don’t get to start second guessing the logic of it,” said one source, describing the mood. “I sense an extra frustration. There is a bit of a ‘how dare you’ kind of line.”

Voicing his frustrations, Barnier told the diplomats the UK was “basically asking us to organise shortfalls and imperfections at our border”.

While EU diplomats were focused on technical talks, many have been aghast at the UK prime minister’s performance in the Commons on Wednesday night. EU officials feel Johnson and his ministers have burned bridges with Labour and one-nation Tories. “How do you get to a point where if magically you get to a deal at the European council, you are able to get the Commons to vote it through?” asked a source.

“There was very little talk of recent developments in Westminster, if only to note that it seemed increasingly difficult to see how the government would obtain a majority for a deal, given the divisions getting more entrenched by the day,” a second diplomat added.

When asked if Johnson had ever lied about the EU, a spokeswoman for the European commission said: “I think President Juncker himself has said in a number of interviews, without referring to Prime Minister Johnson himself, but referring to events related to the brexit referendum campaign has said he should have intervened because a lot of untruths were told back then.

“He would have been quite busy correcting all these untruths every day but he was not referring specifically to Prime Minister Johnson with whom he has a constructive exchange but indeed it does matter that we all stay true to the facts as much as possible.”

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, where he was seeing Barnier, Ireland’s deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said the UK had yet to put forward a “serious” proposal, with just four weeks to go before the country is due to leave.

He said: “There are still significant gaps between both sides. A serious proposal coming forward from the UK side that hasn’t happened yet.

“Until there’s a serious proposal in writing that can be the basis for a negotiation then the gaps that are wide at the moment will remain and time is running out we need to move this process on but really the onus is on the British prime minister and his team to allow that to happen by putting serious proposals on the table that the EU can then negotiate around to try and find a way of getting a deal done.”

Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin

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