Saturday, December 4

Johnson threat to EU over backstop

Boris Johnson’s government has played down the idea of fresh Brexit talks with the EU unless Brussels first agrees to reopen the entire withdrawal agreement and scrap the Irish backstop, both of which have been repeatedly ruled out.

In a stance that appears to place the UK more firmly on course for a no-deal departure on 31 October, Downing Street said there were no new Brexit talks scheduled, and that Johnson was clear what the basis for those discussions needs to be.

His spokesman said: I don’t have a date to point you towards. The PM has been very clear that he is ready to begin having those discussions, but obviously the key point is the withdrawal agreement is not going to pass parliament, so that is going to mean reopening the withdrawal agreement.

He added: He will be energetic and front-footed in seeking a deal, but if a deal is not possible, we will be leaving.

Asked if Johnson’s team had asked for any talks with Brussels, the spokesman said: What we’ve done is set out our position and say that we are very ready and will be energetic in beginning talking, but we’re also clear-eyed about what needs to happen if we are going to be able to secure a deal which parliament can support.

As I say, we are ready to begin talking, but we are clear what the basis for those discussions needs to be.

Pressed on whether this meant, in effect, the process was deadlocked given the EU’s unity in insisting the withdrawal agreement cannot be torn up, the spokesman said the UK’s priority remained to leave with a deal.

But it is very clear that if we are going to be able to secure a deal that allows us to leave on 31 October, which the prime minister has said we are absolutely going to do, that is going to mean reopening the withdrawal agreement, he said.

Johnson has begun informal discussions with EU leaders since arriving at No 10 on Wednesday, but has again reiterated the same unyielding view, as in a call on Thursday with the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

He later had a call with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, which touched on Brexit. Asked what message Johnson would give Macron and others, his spokesman said it would be to stress that the withdrawal agreement has been rejected three times by the House of Commons, it’s not going to pass, so that means reopening the withdrawal agreement and securing the abolition of the backstop.

Earlier, France’s minister for European affairs, Amélie de Montchalin, said both sides should avoid games, gestures and provocations over the Irish border, with just three months to go before the UK is due to leave.