UK’s Brexit talks with EU on verge of collapse

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM (AFP) – Brexit talks between Britain and the European Union (EU) teetered on the brink of collapse on Tuesday, with tit-for-tat claims of intransigence and sabotage before an end of October deadline.

United Kingdom (UK) Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as he tried to salvage new divorce terms he has proposed ahead of next week’s pivotal EU summit in Brussels.

Unusually, Downing Street then provided a readout of what Merkel reportedly said, provoking an incendiary tweet from EU Council President Donald Tusk.

According to London, Merkel demanded a rewrite of Britain’s approach to the long-vexing Irish border problem that made a compromise “essentially impossible”.

The Downing Street official quoted Merkel as saying that a deal now looked “overwhelmingly unlikely”, and added that the Brexit talks were “close to breaking down”.

An anti-Brexit demonstrator waves a European Union flag near Parliament in London. PHOTO: AFP

Britain has been trying for more than three years to find a way to deliver on the result of a 2016 referendum and end its almost five-decade involvement in the European bloc.

Riding a wave of British frustrations with the saga, Johnson is threatening to leave at any cost – with or without a withdrawal deal – on October 31.

In Berlin, Merkel’s office said it would not comment “on such confidential discussions”. Johnson’s official spokesman also declined to say anything about the substance of the call.

But he told reporters the pair had a “frank exchange” – diplomatic speak for a disagreement.

A frustrated Tusk accused Britain of playing with “the future of Europe and the UK” with no clear plan of what the country wanted.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he found it “hard to disagree” with Tusk, stressing that Dublin would “not strike a deal at any cost”.

He said Johnson had restated his wish of finding an agreement during a 40-minute phone call with his Irish counterpart Leo Varadakar. But Varadkar later told broadcaster RTE he thought it would be “very difficult to secure an agreement by next week.”

The two are expected to meet for talks later this week, according to the Press Association.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said late Tuesday “efforts continue” to reach a Brexit deal with Britain, after meeting with Coveney. But much of the focus is shifting to what happens if the Brexit talks are formally pronounced dead.

The Irish government published a 2020 spending plan with a 1.2-billion-euro (USD1.3 billion) relief fund based on the assumption that there will be no agreement.