STRASBOURG: The European Union (EU) ‘s two top officials handling troublesome Brexit negotiations warned Wednesday that the risk of a no-deal exit looms large unless Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government offers concrete proposals.
“The risk of a no deal remains very real. That will maybe be the choice of the United Kingdom but never the choice of the European Union,” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
The warning came two days after Juncker and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met in Luxembourg for talks, just six weeks before Britain is set to exit the bloc.
That trip ended in humiliation for Johnson after he avoided what was meant to be a joint press conference with his Luxembourg counterpart, put-off by a small anti-Brexit protest nearby.
Juncker emphasised the UK still has not offered any viable solutions to rewrite a withdrawal agreement struck by Johnson’s predecessor but rejected three times by the British parliament.
Juncker said “I am not sure” that a new deal would be reached.
“We have very little time left. But I am sure we must try,” said the EU leader, whose mandate ends on Oct 31, the deadline for Britain to leave the EU.
The strident message paralleled stepped-up moves by Brussels and London to hand out blame for a chaotic no-deal Brexit.
The EU’s pointman in the negotiations, Michel Barnier, told MEPs in Strasbourg that “it is certainly not a question of pretending to negotiate”.
He added that “it is our responsibility to pursue this process with determination, with sincerity.”
His words were taken as a dig at Johnson, who is seen by many in Brussels and London as running down the clock to have Britain exit the EU “with or without” a new deal.
If so, Johnson risks falling foul of a law hastily passed by the UK parliament requiring him to ask for another Brexit delay, a third, by Oct 19 if no new deal is worked out with the EU.
Britain’s parliament is currently suspended at Johnson’s initiative in a move being challenged in the country’s Supreme Court.
EU leaders are to hold a summit on Oct 17-18, seen as the last chance to strike a deal.
Bogged down in the backstop
The thorniest issue in the talks between Britain and the EU is that of the “backstop” an effort to guarantee that no border will spring up between EU member Ireland and the UK’s province of Northern Ireland while ensuring that the EU’s single market will be protected.
Under the withdrawal deal reached last year, the UK was to stay in the EU’s customs union temporarily, in case talks towards a trade deal failed.
But Johnson rejects the guarantee and is reportedly exploring ways that Northern Ireland alone could abide by EU agriculture and food standards without a full-fledged backstop.
“The new British government… has underlined the backstop aspects it doesn’t like. That is not enough to reach a solution,” Barnier said in Strasbourg.
“We need to find a legally operational solution in the withdrawal agreement that fully answers each of the problems, addresses each of the risks,” he said.