EU Fears Johnson Won’t Come Up With Credible Brexit Solutions
An anti-Brexit protester holds a defaced picture of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson near Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

EU Fears Johnson Won’t Come Up With Credible Brexit Solutions

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(Bloomberg) --

European Union officials fear Boris Johnson will never bring forward ideas for Brexit deal changes they will find acceptable and conclude that the U.K.’s departure without agreement is now the most probable outcome.

Six weeks since Johnson became prime minister, the EU hasn’t seen any proof that the government has credible ideas about how to replace the contentious “backstop” to avoid a hard Irish border, European Commission Brexit negotiators told diplomats from the bloc’s remaining 27 governments Tuesday in Brussels, according to officials in the meeting. Johnson has said the backstop is undemocratic and must be removed if he is to support a deal.

David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, will hold talks with his EU counterparts in Brussels on Wednesday afternoon. A commission spokeswoman said Tuesday that there so far had been progress “on process” and that the EU was still waiting for “concrete proposals compatible with the withdrawal agreement.”

Stephanie Riso, the EU’s deputy chief negotiator, told the meeting that there was nothing in any of the contact the commission had with the British government since Johnson took office that suggested he had a credible idea for how to change the deal, three officials said.

‘Lot to Do’

These officials think the EU is being used by Johnson so that he can win a general election by blaming the bloc for being inflexible and causing no deal.

“It is simply wrong to say that we are not making progress,” Johnson told the U.K. Parliament on Tuesday. “There is a lot to do in the coming days but things are moving.”

Johnson said the U.K. does have a solution for the Irish border to avoid the need for infrastructure and checks without resorting to the backstop, which would keep the U.K. aligned to the EU’s customs and trading rules. Johnson went on to outline ideas including trusted-trader systems and “transit provisions.”

But the EU isn’t convinced that any of these ideas will work and won’t protect the economies of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, the officials said.

Essential Distinction

Riso told the diplomats that the U.K. appeared to be distancing itself from the commitment to “frictionless” trade across the border -- which will become the U.K.’s new frontier with the EU -- to merely an aspiration to avoid a hard border. That wouldn’t be acceptable to the EU.

While the two sides will resume talks tomorrow, neither side believes they are close to an agreement. The U.K. is wary of presenting ideas merely for the EU to dismiss them out of hand, a British official with knowledge of the talks said.

Officials are informally working toward a deadline of the EU summit in mid-October, two weeks before the U.K.’s scheduled exit date.

The meeting of Brexit diplomats, the first since the summer break, indicates that the EU is engaging with the U.K. again despite saying that the original withdrawal agreement -- agreed between Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, and the rest of the EU in November -- isn’t open for renegotiation.

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