Boris Johnson will meet French president Emmanuel Macron later today where he is likely to receive a more brutal assessment of the EU’s position on Brexit than that given by the German chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday.
At a news conference following their discussions, Mr Johnson said he accepted what he called a “blistering timetable” of 30 days to provide a solution to the Brexit deadlock.
In truth Mrs Merkel never proposed such a timetable, merely suggesting that if the UK could come up with an alternative solution to the Irish backstop that was acceptable to the EU then that would be great. If it could be done quickly then so much the better.
The backstop is designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, should such a scenario not be avoided through the future UK-EU relationship, but has been criticised for leaving either Northern Ireland or the whole UK too closely tied to EU rules with no influence.
Mr Johnson has consistently described the backstop as anti-democratic and demanded it be removed from the Withdrawal Agreement.
Mrs Merkel, appearing next to Mr Johnson, told reporters that the backstop had always been a “fallback position” and would only come into effect if no other solution could be agreed that would protect the “integrity” of the EU’s single market.
“If one is able to solve this conundrum, if one finds this solution, we said we would probably find it in the next two years to come but we can also maybe find it in the next 30 days to come,” she said.
“Then we are one step further in the right direction and we have to obviously put our all into this.”
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The German chancellor stressed the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland “needs to be preserved in letter and spirit” during the UK’s exit from the EU.
“We have to somehow try and align those positions which, at first glance is not so easy, but we need to do this,” she added.
Mrs Merkel also declared that the EU would be “prepared” for a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Johnson, who has stepped up the UK’s own preparations for no deal, echoed the German chancellor’s assertion that the “onus” is on Britain to provide substitutes to the backstop arrangement.
He said: “I must say I am very glad listening to you tonight Angela to hear that at least the conversations that matter can now properly begin.
“You have set a very blistering timetable of 30 days – if I understood you correctly, I am more than happy with that.”
The prime minister outlined “alternative arrangements” such as trusted trader schemes or electronic pre-clearing for goods crossing the Irish border.
“The UK will under no circumstances implement checks – customs checks or any type of checks – at the border in Northern Ireland,” Mr Johnson said.
“We think there are ways of protecting the integrity of the EU single market without having checks of that kind at the border.”
Mr Johnson, who also ruled out agreeing to a time limit to the backstop arrangement, added: “I have, in my life, watched a lot of European negotiations and, believe me, it looks at first as though it is, you know, irresistible force and immovable object.
“What in my experience happens is that people find a way through and I think that if we approach this with sufficient patience and optimism, as I say, we can get this done and it is in the final furlong generally when the horses change places and the winning deal appears.”
With 70 days before the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU, Brussels officials are reluctant to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s divorce – a stance that was reiterated by French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday.
The prime minister’s arrival at the German chancellery in Berlin was marked by shouts of “stop Brexit” by protestors.
He also raised eyebrows with his use of the German phrase “wir schaffen das”, meaning “we can do it”, which brought a smile from Mrs Merkel.
The phrase, repeatedly used by the German chancellor during Europe’s migration crisis, has since become linked with criticism of Mrs Merkel’s immigration policy.
She subsequently said she would no longer use the words.
In Paris this afternoon Mr Macron is likely to give a more confrontational response to the prime minister’s Brexit demands than over his dinner of tuna tartare, Brandenburg venison and chocolate tart with Mrs Merkel.
Prompting suggestions Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron are employing a “good cop, bad cop” approach to Brexit, the French president claimed on Wednesday a no-deal Brexit would be of Britain’s own making and not the EU’s.
He also suggested a UK-US trade deal would not mitigate the cost of a no-deal Brexit to Britain.
“Can be offset by the United States of America? No,” he said.
“And even if it were a strategic choice it would be at the cost of an historic vassalisation of Britain.
“I don’t think this is what Boris Johnson wants. I don’t think it is what the British people want.”
Mr Macron said there was not a “cigarette paper” between France, Germany and other EU member states.
In a warning to Britain, he added: “The point can’t be to exit Europe and say ‘we’ll be stronger’, before in the end, becoming the junior partner of the US, which are acting more and more hegemonically.”