With just 23 days before the United Kingdom is due to leave the bloc, the future of Brexit remains deeply uncertain and both London and Brussels are positioning themselves to avoid blame for a delay or a disorderly no-deal Brexit.
In a sign that Johnson’s last-ditch proposals to bridge the impasse have failed, a Downing Street source said Merkel and Johnson spoke on Tuesday morning and she made clear that a deal was “overwhelmingly unlikely”.
The Downing Street source said that if Merkel’s position on Northern Ireland remaining in the EU’s customs union was the bloc’s position, then a deal was impossible.
“If this represents a new established position then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever,” the Downing Street source said. A spokesman for the German chancellor confirmed the call had taken place but declined to comment further.
The EU was scathing.
“Boris Johnson, what’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game,” European Council President Tusk said on Twitter. “At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis?”
Johnson’s Brexit envoy, diplomat David Frost, is in Brussels for technical talks on a possible withdrawal agreement to put to EU leaders at next week’s European summit.
But the two sides are still far apart over future customs arrangements for Northern Ireland, and EU officials were forced to deny reports from London that talks are close to breaking down.
“From our side we reiterate that the EU position has not changed. We want a deal, we are working with the UK for a deal,” spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told reporters.
“Technical talks are continuing today so I don’t see how talks could have actually broken down if they are happening today and in the days to continue,” she said.
Talks between Frost and junior EU officials were to begin later Tuesday, then chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier was to meet Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney in the evening.
On Wednesday, Barnier is to brief the European Commission and officials have said the talks must lead to a legal text by Friday if they are to be considered at the October 17-18 summit.
A disorderly Brexit could rip apart the United Kingdom, hurt global growth and shape the future of the European Union which was built on the World War Two ruins of Europe.
The pound fell 0.5% to a one-week low of $1.2226, and weakened more than 0.7% against the euro, touching a low of 89.93 pence – its weakest level since September 9.
The leader of the small Northern Irish party that supports Johnson’s government accused the EU and Ireland of trying to trap the British territory in a permanent customs union.
The opposition said Johnson was trying to apportion blame for the failure of the negotiating process.
“This is yet another cynical attempt by Number 10 to sabotage the negotiations,” said Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman for the Labour Party, adding that the British parliament needed to unite to stop him.
“Boris Johnson will never take responsibility for his own failure to put forward a credible deal. His strategy from day one has been for a no-deal Brexit.”
A separate Downing Street source told Reuters that unless the European Union compromises and does a Brexit deal shortly, then the United Kingdom will leave without a deal.
“If the EU doesn’t do a deal shortly, then we leave without a deal,” the source said. “We are leaving the European Union.”
Johnson has consistently said the United Kingdom will leave the EU on October 31 with or without a deal, though a law passed by parliament demands he write a letter to the EU asking for a delay if he cannot strike an exit deal by October 19.
He has said he would abide by the law but Britain would leave the EU by the end of the month, without explaining that contradiction. He has also repeatedly demanded an election but parliament has refused to grant one.
The Spectator magazine quoted an unidentified source in Downing Street as saying that Britain would take an aggressive stance towards the EU if Brexit talks break down, possibly even by withholding security cooperation.
“This government will not negotiate further so any delay would be totally pointless,” the source was quoted as saying. “We’ll either leave with no deal on 31 October or there will be an election and then we will leave with no deal.”
However, Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said any threat on withdrawing security cooperation were not in the interests of Northern Ireland or the union of the United Kingdom.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)