Johnson, Merkel to face off in first Brexit talks

The German chancellor however is almost certain to reject any attempt to renegotiate the backstop

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with British PM Boris Johnson

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Berlin on Wednesday to kick off a marathon of tense talks with key European and international leaders as the threat of a chaotic no-deal Brexit looms. On his first foreign visit since taking office, Johnson will seek to convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel to renegotiate elements of the UK's impending divorce from the European Union - something the EU leaders have already ruled out.

On Thursday he would do the same while visiting French President Emmanuel Macron. Then, at the weekend, all three will meet US President Donald Trump, a vocal supporter of Brexit and its champion Johnson, and the leaders of Canada, Italy and Japan at a G7 summit in the French seaside resort of Biarritz.

Given the shock and dismay Brexit has sparked in continental Europe, its vocal champion, the flamboyant former London mayor and ex-foreign minister Johnson, is sure to meet political headwinds in Germany. German media regularly characterises Johnson as a reckless and unprincipled political showman with Trump-style populist tendencies. Influential news magazine Der Spiegel recently caricatured him as the tooth-gapped cover boy Alfred E. Neuman of the American humour magazine Mad, with the headline "Mad in England". The business daily Handelsblatt, meanwhile, wrote that "Johnson is an admirer of Donald Trump's crowbar politics" but also warned that "the Europeans should not underestimate him".

In addition, the conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recommended that the EU not give in to scare tactics, pointing out that the UK has far more to lose than the bloc does.

"When the new prime minister pays visits to Paris and Berlin this week to 'threaten' a hard Brexit once again," it said, "his opposite numbers should remind him in a friendly yet unmistakeably firm manner of the realities he risks incurring."

Johnson, in a do-or-die gamble, has insisted Britain will leave the EU on 31 October, no matter whether it has ironed out remaining differences with the bloc or not, at the risk of economic turmoil. The apparent hope is that the other 27 EU Members States will blink and make concessions to avoid a no-deal Brexit that would hurt people and companies on both sides of the Channel.

But Johnson's tough stance has put him on a collision course with Merkel, Macron and other EU leaders who have insisted the withdrawal deal is final and stressed the need for unity among the other 27 nations. On Tuesday, EU Council President Donald Tusk once again made clear the bloc would not cave in to British PM's demand to scrap the so-called Irish border backstop plan, which would keep Britain in the European customs union if no trade deal is signed.

The mechanism aims to avoid a "hard border" between EU-member Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland, which could raise the threat of renewed sectarian tensions.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar this week also reiterated the EU 27 position that the withdrawal agreement struck under Johnson's predecessor Theresa May cannot be reopened. However, Johnson has slammed the backstop as "undemocratic" and charged it would prevent Britain from pursuing a trade policy independent of EU rules.

"If Johnson hopes to persuade Merkel and Macron to sweet-talk Varadkar into changing his tune, he will likely be disappointed," Berenberg Bank senior economist Kallum Pickering told AFP.

"All of the EU's actions so far since the Brexit vote demonstrate that the EU's priority is the cohesion of the 27," he added.

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