Brexit Talks Go On Hold as Leaders Focus on Pinning Blame
A pro-Brexit campaigner holds a banner reading “No Deal? No Problem!” near the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)  

Brexit Talks Go On Hold as Leaders Focus on Pinning Blame

(Bloomberg) --

The Brexit talks have turned into an angry stalemate, as U.K. and EU leaders focused on blaming each other for refusing to budge.

In London, Boris Johnson’s administration accused the European Union on Tuesday of adopting a new, harder position. European Parliament President David Sassoli, after meeting the prime minister, questioned whether he had ever been serious about reaching a deal. In Brussels, negotiators from the two sides looked likely not to meet Wednesday.

Any hope of a deal now rests with a meeting between Johnson and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, planned for Thursday or Friday. But neither side looks to have the political space to give the ground the other side needs.

“The narrative seems to be leaning towards a blame game rather than actually trying to solve the issue,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said in Dublin.

He spoke after a British official gave an account of a call between Johnson and Angela Merkel that accused the German leader of shifting the EU’s position and making a deal less likely. That briefing itself followed a Spectator magazine article by an unnamed official in Johnson’s office that suggested there was little chance of a deal and threatened retribution against EU countries backing a delay to Brexit.

All that goaded European Council President Donald Tusk into attacking Johnson on Twitter.

If there’s no deal -- and the only point of agreement on all sides is that a deal is unlikely -- then Johnson says the U.K. will leave the EU without one Oct. 31. His own government’s reports suggest this could cause economic chaos, principally for the U.K. and Ireland, but also for the EU. But Johnson also says he will comply with the law, which requires him to seek and accept a delay to Brexit from the EU.

In either scenario, the prime minister is likely to seek an election, asking the public either for a mandate to leave the EU without a deal, or for approval for having done so. But though some in Johnson’s office are enthusiastic about such a fight, many of his ministers and members of Parliament have doubts -- when they backed Johnson to lead them, he reassured them that the chances of a no-deal Brexit were a million-to-one.

The core disagreement with the EU remains, as it has been for most of the last three years, on the question of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. It was a subject to which Johnson and his team paid little attention when they campaigned for Brexit in 2016. Now, unless they can find a way past the problem, their ability to deliver Brexit at all could be in doubt.

Tuesday’s descent into acrimony was focused on the offer that Johnson put on the table last week. He proposed that Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., leave the EU’s customs union, and suggested the border could be controlled with limited customs checks away from the frontier. But Varadkar says any checks at all will put at risk peace in Northern Ireland, which suffered decades of terrorism.

They disagree, too, about how the people of Northern Ireland should give their democratic consent to any agreement. Johnson proposes giving a regular sign-off to the region’s assembly, which hasn’t met for nearly three years because of internal disagreements. For Ireland and the EU, this threatens regular bouts of uncertainty.

But according to an official in Johnson’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity, this offer was made in good faith, in the belief that Varadkar and the EU were ready to make a move in return. That came after discussions between the two men in September, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

It was during Johnson’s call with Merkel on Tuesday morning that it sank in that this wasn’t going to happen. Johnson told Merkel that the negotiations were like a boat stuck on rocks, and that he needed her help lifting it off. He asked her what was needed.

Clear Unease

According to one British account, it was at this point that Merkel told the prime minister he would have to accept that Northern Ireland would stay in the customs union for ever. Another British official said this had been Johnson’s characterization of the situation, but added that the call had been very bad from a British perspective.

Merkel’s office declined to comment beyond confirming the phone call took place, refusing to escalate a standoff with the U.K. Privately, a German official rejected the British account of the call and said Merkel’s position hadn’t changed. Other German officials took a dim view of the U.K. approach. Johann Wadephul, a deputy parliamentary group leader in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said Johnson’s strategy would backfire.

The U.K. briefing of Johnson’s discussion with Merkel was a far cry from the usual bland read-outs that the government gives, and it was clear that there was unease in some parts of the British government about the aggressive approach that some in Johnson’s office were taking. Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith publicly repudiated threats against the EU.

The prime minister’s spokesman, James Slack, refused to comment on off-record briefings against the EU, urging reporters to look instead at Johnson’s more careful on-the-record comments. When Johnson spoke to Varadkar at the end of the day, the two sides gave exactly the same brief report of the call, a sign that they might be trying to take the heat out of the issue.

In Brussels, two EU officials denied the U.K. accusation that the bloc has hardened its position in recent days, saying that the stance on the Irish border has been clear since the start. While there was always room to talk on the issue of Northern Irish consent for the deal, the EU had always made clear that there can be no question of a veto, the officials said.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier will on Wednesday address the European Parliament on Brexit. They are expected to say that while the bloc remains willing to talk, it’s clear the two sides are far apart, the two officials said.

Late Tuesday, Varadkar said it’s hard to see a deal to break the impasse over Brexit being clinched next week. He told RTE that some of the briefing from London about him was becoming toxic, but vowed to hold the U.K. to earlier promises to avoid a return to a hard border in Ireland.

“I don’t play dirty,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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