LUXEMBOURG (AP) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker held their first face-to-face talks yesterday, without any visible signs of a breakthrough on an elusive Brexit deal.
The two men talked over a two-hour lunch of snails and salmon in Juncker’s native Luxembourg, amid claims from the United Kingdom (UK) – though not the European Union (EU) – that a deal is in sight.
The European Commission said after the meeting that Britain had yet to offer any “legally operational” solutions to the issue of the Irish border, the main roadblock to a deal.
“President Juncker underlined the Commission’s continued willingness and openness to examine whether such proposals meet the objectives of the backstop” – a border provision rejected by Britain.
“Such proposals have not yet been made,” the European Commission said in a statement, adding that officials “will remain available to work 24/7.”
Johnson said the UK will leave the EU on the scheduled October 31 date, with or without a withdrawal agreement. But he insists he can strike a revised divorce deal with the bloc in time for an orderly departure. The agreement made by his predecessor, Theresa May, was rejected three times by Britain’s Parliament.
Johnson said in a Daily Telegraph column yesterday that he believes “passionately” that a deal can be agreed and approved at a summit of EU leaders on October 17-18.
While the EU said it is still waiting for firm proposals from the UK, Johnson spokesman James Slack said Britain had “put forward workable solutions in a number of areas.”
He declined to provide details, saying it was unhelpful to negotiate in public.
The key sticking point is the “backstop,” an insurance policy in May’s agreement intended to guarantee an open border between EU member Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland.
That is vital both to the local economy and to Northern Ireland’s peace process.
British Brexit supporters oppose the backstop because it keeps the UK bound to EU trade rules, limiting its ability to forge new free trade agreements around the world after Brexit.
Britain has suggested the backstop could be replaced by “alternative arrangements,” but the EU said it has yet to hear any workable suggestions.
Neither side expected a breakthrough yesterday, but much still rests on Johnson’s encounter with Juncker, who like other EU officials is tired of the long-running Brexit drama, and wary of Johnson’s populist rhetoric.
Yesterday’s meeting marks the start a tumultuous week, with the Brexit deadline just 45 days away.
Today, Britain’s Supreme Court will consider whether Johnson’s decision to prorogue – or suspend – the British Parliament for five weeks was lawful, after conflicting judgements in Lower Courts.
Johnson sent lawmakers home until October 14, a drastic move that gives him a respite from rebellious lawmakers determined to thwart his Brexit plan.