Boris Johnson’s efforts to renegotiate Theresa May’s failed EU withdrawal agreement appear to be running into the sand, after Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar delivered a firm rebuff to his demand to ditch the controversial backstop.
The taoiseach became the latest in a string of EU leaders to resist the new PM’s efforts to secure the removal of the arrangement – designed to keep the Irish border open until alternative technological controls are in place – as the price of a deal on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Mr Varadkar said opponents of the backstop had failed to identify a viable alternative and told the PM that the remaining 27 EU states were “united” in their position that the withdrawal agreement reached last November cannot be reopened.
Despite UK ministers’ claims that border checkpoints could be avoided by the use of methods such as electronic customs declarations and trusted trader schemes, the taoiseach told Mr Johnson that satisfactory options “have yet to be identified and demonstrated”.
With Downing Street indicating that the new prime minister is not ready to open talks unless Brussels abandons the backstop, Mr Johnson signalled clearly that he was ready to blame the EU if the UK crashes out in a damaging no-deal Brexit on 31 October.
It was now “their call” whether an agreement was reached or not, he told reporters.
The pound slid further to a two-year low of $1.21 amid anxieties of a no-deal Brexit as Mr Johnson told the taoiseach that Britain would be leaving by Halloween “no matter what”.
And the PM faced anger from farmers during a visit to Wales, with some accusing him of “playing Russian roulette” with the sheep industry, which faces 40 per cent tariffs on exports if the UK is forced to trade with Europe on World Trade Organisation terms.
Securing concessions from Dublin on arrangements for the Irish border is a key element of Mr Johnson’s bid to obtain a new withdrawal agreement before the Halloween deadline for Brexit.
He insists the Westminster parliament will not accept the backstop, which Brussels regards as essential to keeping the Irish border open following Brexit.
But his failure to speak to Mr Varadkar for almost a week after entering No 10 raised some eyebrows in the Republic, with a senior Irish government source telling media in the country that it appeared to be an attempt to “up the ante” on the issue.
Mr Johnson was forced to admit on Monday that discussions with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron in the days after he succeeded Ms May had produced “no change in their position”.
His failure to make headway on reopening negotiations comes despite his repeated claims that Brussels would be ready to make concessions once it saw that the UK was preparing in earnest for no deal.
Speaking to reporters in Wales, Mr Johnson said the UK was not aiming for a no-deal Brexit but insisted that the situation was now “very much up to our friends and partners across the Channel”.
“They know that three times the House of Commons has thrown out that backstop, there’s no way that we can get it through, we have to have that backstop out of the deal, we cannot go on with the withdrawal agreement as it currently is,” he said.
“If they understand that then I think we are going to be at the races. If they can’t compromise, if they really can’t do it, then clearly we have to get ready for a no-deal exit.”
He said it was “up to the EU, this is their call if they want us to do this” but “unless we are determined to do it they won’t take us seriously in the course of the negotiations”.
Mr Johnson told the taoiseach in their phone call that the UK government will never put physical checks or physical infrastructure on the border and will remain “steadfast” in its commitment to the Good Friday Agreement.
The PM said London will approach any negotiations “with determination and energy and in a spirit of friendship”, and that his clear preference is to leave the EU with a deal, but added that any deal must be “one that abolishes the backstop”.
The backstop arrangement would see either Northern Ireland or the whole UK remain within the EU customs union for a period following Brexit, in order to protect the single market from imports of goods which do not meet its standards.
Under the terms of the deal reached by Ms May and rejected three times by parliament, it would remain in place until technological solutions were found to allay European concerns about movements over the border.
The chief executive of the Best for Britain campaign for a second referendum, Naomi Smith, said it was “extraordinary” for Mr Johnson to suggest the EU would be to blame for the failure to secure a deal after he said he was going for Brexit “do or die”.
“His aggressive language pushing for a no-deal Brexit means he cannot now accuse the EU of being at fault for us leaving without an agreement,” said Ms Smith.
“This is just more posturing from the new prime minister. He knows he’s made Brexit pledges he can’t keep.
“Instead of continuing with this fruitless negotiation, he should instead give people the chance to say they want to change tack and stay in the EU.”
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