'Unacceptable': EU dismisses Boris Johnson's Brexit plan hours after he unveils it to MPs

Michel Barnier writes to member states after Johnson statement

Jon Stone
,Andrew Woodcock
Thursday 25 July 2019 16:32 BST
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The EU’s chief negotiator has dismissed Boris Johnson‘s latest Brexit plan just hours after he unveiled it to MPs.

In an email to member states seen by The Independent, Michel Barnier said the proposal unveiled by Mr Johnson on Thursday afternoon was “of course unacceptable” as it crossed red lines laid down by EU leaders.

Mr Johnson used his first statement to the House of Commons as prime minister to call on Brussels to drop the controversial Irish backstop from the Brexit withdrawal agreement as the price of further talks.

But in the email, Mr Barnier told member states that the demands contained in the “rather combative” statement by Mr Johnson were very clearly a no-go.

“PM Johnson has stated that if an agreement is to be reached it goes by way of eliminating the backstop. This is of course unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European council,” he wrote.

The top official added: “As suggested by his rather combative speech, we have to be ready for a situation where he gives priority to the planning for ‘no deal’, partly to heap pressure on the unity of the EU27.

“No deal will never be the EU’s choice, but we all have to be ready for all scenarios.”

Mr Barnier suggested to the member states that the best response from the EU was ”to remain calm, stick to our principles and guidelines and show solidarity and unity to the 27”.

He also said the speech had sparked “many strong reactions in the House of Commons” and said the EU “must follow carefully the further political and economic reactions and developments in the UK following this speech” – an apparent reference the possible instability of the government.

The prime minister spoke with European Commission president Jean-Clade Juncker on the phone on Thursday evening. An EU source said Mr Juncker reiterated during the call that the withdrawal agreement was “the best and only agreement possible” and that the Commission was ready to hold more talks should “the United Kingdom wish to clarify its position in more detail”. The pair are understood to have exchanged mobile numbers.

A UK government spokesperson said the prime minister “reiterated that he wants a deal, and will be energetic in pursuit of finding a way forward” during the call but “said the Withdrawal Agreement has been rejected three times by the UK parliament and will not pass in its current form”. The spokesperson added that Mr Johnson argued that “if an agreement is to be reached it must be understood that the way to a deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop”.

Making his first statement to the House of Commons as prime minister, Mr Johnson restated his absolute commitment to taking the UK out of the EU by 31 October, with or without a deal.

And he insisted that any deal must strip out all mention of the backstop – which keeps the UK in a customs union until an alternative way is found to keep the Irish border open – and hold the issue back to later negotiations on the future trade relationship between the UK and EU.

Despite having voted in favour of Ms May’s deal less than four months ago, the new PM denounced it as “unacceptable” and insisted that “no country that values its independence and indeed its self-respect” could agree it.

A time limit on the backstop – something which has already been rejected by the EU – was “not enough”, he said.

“If an agreement is to be reached it must be clearly understood that the way to the deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop,” Mr Johnson told MPs.

“For our part we are ready to negotiate in good faith an alternative, with provisions to ensure that the Irish border issues are dealt with where they should always have been: in the negotiations on the future agreement between the UK and the EU.”

Boris Johnson delivers his statement to MPs at the House of Commons

To heckles of “how?” from opposition MPs, Mr Johnson insisted that alternative arrangements for overseeing movements across what would be the post-Brexit UK’s only land border with the EU were “perfectly possible and perfectly compatible with the Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement”.

He said that he and Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, were “ready to meet and to talk on this basis to the commission or other EU colleagues whenever – and wherever – they are ready to do so”.

Mr Johnson promised the UK would throw itself into negotiations with “the greatest energy and determination and in the spirit of friendship”.

And he added: “I hope that the EU will be equally ready and that they will rethink their current refusal to make any changes to the withdrawal agreement.”

But he said that if Brussels would not budge, the UK was ready to leave without a deal, with preparations “turbo-charged” by Michael Gove, who has been given special responsibilities to get the country ready in his new role as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Mr Johnson also revealed that he would not be nominating a British EU commissioner to sit on the bloc’s new commission – to show he was serious about leaving. The move is a change of approach from Theresa May, who continued to play along with the bloc’s institutions while the UK was still a member state. The EU legal status of the new prime minister’s pledge is yet to be determined.

Speaking on Thursday after the statement, Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, warned: “The position of the European Union and the position of Ireland has not changed.

“The backstop is an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, without the backstop there is no Withdrawal Agreement, there is no transition phase, there is no implementation phase and there will be no free trade agreement until all those matters are resolved.”

He added: “So I hope that the new UK prime minister has not chosen no deal, but that will be up to them.”

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