BIARRITZ (France) • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Council head Donald Tusk sparred yesterday over who would be to blame should Britain leave the European Union on Oct 31 without a divorce deal in place.
Mr Tusk told reporters in Biarritz that he would be willing to hear ideas from Mr Johnson on how to avoid a no-deal Brexit when the two men meet today on the sidelines of a Group of Seven (G-7) summit in the French seaside resort.
But he said he would not work with Britain on an exit from the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
"I still hope that PM Johnson will not like to go down in history as Mr No Deal," said Mr Tusk, who leads the political direction of the 28-nation European Union.
Mr Johnson later retorted that it would be Mr Tusk himself who would carry the mantle if Britain could not secure a new withdrawal agreement.
"I would say to our friends in the EU, if they don't want a no-deal Brexit, then we've got to get rid of the backstop from the treaty.
"If Donald Tusk doesn't want to go down as Mr No Deal, then I hope that point will be borne in mind by him too," Mr Johnson told reporters on his flight to France.
Three years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, 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.
The bloc and its leaders have repeatedly refused to reopen a withdrawal agreement, which includes a protocol on an Irish border insurance policy that then Prime Minister Theresa May agreed to in November.
Mr Johnson is hoping that the threat of a disorderly "no-deal" exit will convince the EU to grant him the divorce deal he wants.
However, on his first foreign trip as prime minister last week, the response from EU heavyweights Germany and France was firm: The withdrawal agreement will not be changed much.
Mr Johnson's key demand is that the EU remove the Irish border backstop, which would keep the United Kingdom 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.
He has vowed to lead the UK out of the EU on Oct 31, with or without a deal.
All eyes at the summit will also be on Mr Johnson's debut on the global stage and his chummy relations with US President Donald Trump.
"What we'll make of this is whether Boris Johnson manages to be a different person on the world stage than he managed as foreign secretary - because he was a disappointment," Ms Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government think-tank, told Agence France-Presse. Mr Johnson was foreign minister from 2016 to last year.
Mr Johnson said the message he will be taking to fellow leaders was that "the Britain I lead will be an international, outward-looking, self-confident nation".
His meeting with Mr Trump will be one of the highlights to watch for at the summit.
Mr Trump says he is eager to meet Mr Johnson, a fellow maverick who enjoys his approval. The pair have spoken several times by phone since Mr Johnson became prime minister on July 24.
Dubbed "Britain's Trump" by some, Mr Johnson shares with the US leader a deep scepticism of the European Union.
They are both divisive figures in their respective countries and enjoy provoking their opponents.
Success on the international stage would allow Mr Johnson to assert his leadership on the domestic front, Ms Maddox said, while a disappointing turn in Biarritz could leave him weakened as he prepares to face a likely vote of no confidence after Parliament returns on Sept 3.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE