UK, EU harden their positions on Brexit as G7 approaches
Member states strongly urged not to give in to Johnson's demand for changes to predecessor Theresa May's agreement.
BRUSSELS — The European Union and Britain on Aug. 20 were hurtling toward a costly and damaging no-deal split in little over two months after kicking off a high-wire week of diplomacy by entrenching themselves deeper in irreconcilable positions.
The EU took only half a day to rebuff a four-page proposal by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to break a deadlock over ensuring a transparent border between the EU’s Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland, saying one key part was “incorrect,” and another “misleading.”
In the diplomatic note from the EU Commission and Council to the EU 27 nations and obtained by the Associated Press, the member states were strongly urged not to give in to Johnson’s demand that the legal withdrawal agreement negotiated with his predecessor Theresa May be changed at this late stage.
Johnson demanded late Monday that the EU re-open Brexit negotiations, scrapping “anti-democratic” provisions for the Irish border that he said would threaten the peace process in Northern Ireland. European Council chief Donald Tusk responded quickly and vigorously, defending the so-called backstop – an insurance policy of sorts meant to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support reestablishing a border,” Tusk tweeted Tuesday. “Even if they do not admit it.”
The backstop would keep Britain closely aligned with the European customs union if the two sides can’t agree on other ways to prevent the reintroduction of border checks on people and goods moving between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The EU’s diplomatic note said it needed to counter Johnson’s assertions in Monday’s proposal, insisting “it is incorrect to state that the people of Northern Ireland have no influence over the legislation that would apply to them.”
Similarly, it said that “the letter’s suggestion that two separate legal, political, economic, and monetary jurisdictions already exist on the island and can be managed with an open border is misleading.”
Such words left a huge rift between the sides, as Johnson was preparing to visit German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. It should culminate in more talks at a summit of G7 leaders this weekend in Biarritz, France.
Johnson has vowed to leave the EU “come what may” on Oct. 31, with or without a deal aimed at softening the transition.
But he is facing rising criticism of his Brexit strategy at home. A leaked report showed that the British government is preparing for widespread shortages of food, fuel and medicines in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“Now, of course, our friends and partners on the other side of the Channel are showing a little bit of reluctance at the moment to change their position,” Johnson told Sky News. “That’s fine – I’m confident that they will – but in the meantime we have to get ready for a no-deal outcome.”
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, vowed Monday to do “everything necessary” to prevent the UK from leaving the EU without a deal. That includes calling a no-confidence vote in Johnson’s government and, if it succeeds, fighting the ensuing general election with a pledge to hold a second public vote on Brexit.
“If MPs are serious about stopping a no-deal crash out, then they will vote down this reckless government,” Corbyn said. “And it falls to the leader of the opposition to make sure no-deal does not happen and the people decide their own future.”
Johnson and Corbyn are fighting for support in an increasingly fractious country where Brexit cuts across traditional party lines.
After a 2016 referendum in which the public voted to leave the EU, May spent more than two years negotiating a Brexit divorce agreement with the bloc. It was repeatedly rejected by Parliament, primarily because of concerns about the Irish border.