Brexit compromise far from being done

EU hints of new deadline extension, Johnson cautiously optimistic

Photo: EPA Anti-Brexit demonstrators stage a protest in front of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels

Mere days before a crucial EU leaders summit and three weeks before the current Brexit deadline, 31 October, the UK and the EU seem as far as ever in the last three years concerning compromise on the way Britain is to leave the Union, news wires reported. While British PM Boris Johnson played bravely with a plan for a last-minute deal, the EU told him significant concessions should be made in order to reach an accord.

As the clock ticks down to the deadline, Brexit further descended into a public row between London and Brussels as both sides position for another delay followed by an election in Britain or an acrimonious divorce. After a Downing Street source said a Brexit deal was essentially impossible because German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made unacceptable demands, the EU accused Johnson of playing a “stupid blame game”.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said striking a Brexit deal ahead of 31 October would be “very difficult” and the bloc could not accept Johnson's proposals. “To put things frankly, we are not really in a position to be able to find agreement with the UK,” Barnier told the Parliament, adding he would be available 24/7 in the coming days to try to strike a deal.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was working for a Brexit deal, which in his words was still possible. “I don't accept this blame game that started in London. Personally, I don't exclude a deal,” Juncker told the Parliament's plenary. “The risk of a no-deal remains real and basically is going to come down to a decision by the UK government, but will never be the choice of the EU,” he pointed out.

According to EP President David Sassoli, who met with Macron, Merkel and Johnson last week, the Parliament “would support a request from the UK government to extend the withdrawal period in order to have time for a general election or a referendum”. He also pointed out after talking to Johnson that “there has been no progress” in Brexit talks. Sassoli said Johnson had given vague answers to questions about preserving an open border between the Irish Republic and British-ruled Northern Ireland after Brexit.

The EU's two most powerful leaders, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, will meet at the Elysee Palace on Sunday ahead of the EU summit in order to elaborate a joint position on Brexit, Macron's office said. “I'm still cautiously, cautiously optimistic,” Johnson commented on the possibility of a last-minute deal to be reached anyway.

However, EU diplomats are sceptical about the chances. Most expect Johnson to be forced to accept a delay to Brexit - a step that could ultimately lead to either a disorderly exit or the reversal of the entire Brexit endeavour, Reuters reported. “There will be no rabbit-out-of-the-hat solutions,” one EU official said. “There will be more talks and more political contacts. But, for the time being, there is no breakthrough to be reported.”

Johnson has repeatedly cast the EU 17-18 October summit as the last chance for the EU to strike a deal or face the disruption of a no-deal Brexit that would divide the West, threaten the unity of the UK and roil financial markets. A week ago, he proposed a possible solution to ensure the border between the British-ruled province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland does not become a backdoor into the EU's single market and customs union.

Behind the rhetoric, the Brexit finale will ultimately be decided by Merkel, Macron, Johnson, Juncker and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar - all of whom say they want an orderly exit. Johnson and Varadkar were due to meet on Thursday.

Last Wednesday, EU officials were forced to deny that Brussels was preparing a major concession to Britain to secure a Brexit deal. The Times newspaper reported that the EU was ready to offer a mechanism for the Northern Irish Assembly to leave a new so-called Ireland backstop after a number of years. “Unfortunately, no bold new offer is coming from the EU side at this stage,” an EU official said, while stressing that the bloc was not closing the door to more talks with Britain.

The officials said the bloc felt the gap was too big between both sides' stances on the customs arrangements after Brexit, to offer any breakthroughs on the Northern Irish element of the puzzle and go for a deal now. They said the bloc was ready to work on giving Northern Irish authorities more say after Brexit but were against the way this mechanism has been devised in the latest British proposals.

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