No Brexit breakthrough for Johnson yet

Visiting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson making himself at home during his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee palace in Paris on Thursday, resting his foot on the table. The episode seemed to be part of a shared joke wit
Visiting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson making himself at home during his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee palace in Paris on Thursday, resting his foot on the table. The episode seemed to be part of a shared joke with Mr Macron.PHOTO: REUTERS

Irish backstop still an issue as EU stance remains unchanged

LONDON/PARIS/BERLIN • After the sterling soared and some British newspapers roared at a supposed Brexit victory for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Europe's power brokers had a more sobering message: The basic divorce deal is not changing.

Three years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, the outcome of the tortuous Brexit crisis remains unclear, with options ranging from an acrimonious rupture on Oct 31 to a smooth, amicable exit or even another referendum.

Enter Mr Johnson, an avowed Brexiter whose bet is that the threat of a disorderly "no-deal" exit will convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron that the EU must grant him the divorce deal that he wants.

Mr Johnson met Mr Macron on Thursday at the Elysee Palace, a day after talks in Berlin with Dr Merkel, who challenged Britain to come up with acceptable alternatives to the agreed safety net provision for the UK-Irish land border.

Mr Johnson may have taken a month to embark on his first trip abroad, but he was quick to make himself at home in Mr Macron's gilded palace, putting his feet up on the furniture.

Never shy to play the clown during his political career, Mr Johnson was filmed joking to the cameras and briefly resting his foot on a coffee table at the Elysee palace. The episode appeared to be part of a shared joke with Mr Macron, who could be seen laughing heartily.

"Sorry!" Mr Johnson could be heard saying, using a favourite word of any Briton, as he waved in the direction of the waiting media and began the talks.

His foot-on-table antic was widely slammed, with his biographer Sonia Purnell calling it "rude and embarrassing".

The scene took place after Mr Johnson and Mr Macron addressed journalists in the Elysee courtyard, during which Mr Macron warned there was not enough time to wholly rewrite Britain's divorce deal before an Oct 31 deadline.

Mr Johnson's key demand is that the EU remove the Irish border backstop - an insurance policy that would keep Britain in a Customs union with the EU unless a better solution is found to keep open Ireland's 500km land border with the British province of Northern Ireland.

As the backstop would also keep Northern Ireland aligned with the rules of the EU's single market, Mr Johnson and the Northern Irish party that props up his government see it as a threat to United Kingdom unity - and their own political survival.

Part of the problem is that there is suspicion in Europe that Mr Johnson is using Brexit diplomacy to line up a potentially vote-winning confrontation with the EU ahead of a possible British election.

But part of the problem is that there is suspicion in Europe that Mr Johnson is using Brexit diplomacy to line up a potentially vote-winning confrontation with the EU ahead of a possible British election.

Dr Merkel is keen to ensure that the EU is not seen as being unwilling to talk - but is equally keen not to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. Rather, as has been EU policy for some time, changes would be addressed in the non-binding declaration on future ties.

 
 
 

Still, Berlin was impressed that Mr Johnson had been serious and accepted publicly that if there was to be progress, London would have to come up with a way to solve the Irish border issue.

In Paris, a diplomatic source said Mr Macron was trying to appear constructive - but had not changed his stance.

France's position, the source said, was that discussions are possible within the acceptance that the fundamental principles of the Withdrawal Agreement remain the protection of the EU single market and political stability in Ireland.

So has there been a change in the EU's position? "No," said one official. "No change."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2019, with the headline 'No Brexit breakthrough for Johnson yet'. Print Edition | Subscribe