Macron backs more Brexit talks, refuses concessions

The French president rejected any scraping of the backstop arrangement for Ireland

Photo: AFP British PM Boris Johnson (L) pictured putting his foot on a table while in the Elysee palace with French President Emmanuel Macron.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday backed holding further talks to avoid Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal but rejected major concessions, as he hosted Prime Minister Boris Johnson just over two months ahead of the planned British exit.

Echoing comments by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron supported allowing another month to find a solution to the vexed issue of the Irish border which has bedevilled negotiations since 2017. Admitting he had a reputation as the "hardest in the gang" on Brexit, Macron however rejected Johnson's calls to scrap the backstop arrangement for Ireland and said all talks had to be based on the withdrawal deal negotiated by Johnson's predecessor Theresa May repeatedly rejected by the British parliament.

The backstop is a provision guaranteeing that border checks will not return between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland which is part of Britain. It provided "indispensable guarantees to preserve stability in Ireland and the integrity of the single market," Macron insisted.

"We need to try to have a useful month [on the matter]," Macron said alongside Johnson, adding that France was nonetheless planning for all scenarios and "notably that of no-deal" when Britain exits the EU on 31 October.

Johnson, who pictures showed putting his foot on a table in the Elysee palace, however insisted that solutions were "readily available" to prevent checkpoints returning in divided Ireland. He also once again made his call for the backstop to be removed, as he see it "anti-democratic".

"Let's get Brexit done, let's get it done sensibly and pragmatically in the interests of both sides," he then said, adding that all the necessary work should be done "to make sure - whether we get an agreement or not - our exit is as smooth and pain-free as possible."

Since Johnson's ascent to power last month, the chances of a "no-deal" Brexit on 31 October have risen, which economists see as likely to wreak economic damage on Britain and the EU.

"The EU and Member States need to take the possibility of a 'no deal' outcome much more seriously than before," an EU official said on condition of anonymity. A French official also told AFP on Wednesday that this was becoming the "most likely" scenario.

But the window offered by France and Germany to Johnson to find a solution led to renewed optimism in financial markets, where the pound rose by as much as 1.0 percent against the euro and dollar. Furthermore, speaking in the Netherlands later on Thursday, Merkel said Britain had right up to the current deadline for Brexit of 31 October to find a solution to the Irish border problem, beyond the 30-day window she mentioned on Wednesday.

In response, Johnson said that he had been "powerfully encouraged" by his talks with Germany's leader.

"I admire that 'can do' spirit that she seemed to have," he said.

But many Brexit watchers saw Merkel's remarks as fitting a pattern in which Merkel has often been more conciliatory in public about Brexit than Macron, whose abrasive remarks have angered London in the past.

"There is not the width of cigarette paper between Paris and Berlin on these issues," a senior aide to Macron said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

Mujtaba Rahman, Europe managing director for the Eurasia Group consultancy, interpreted the offer of talks as a minor concession designed to avoid the EU being seen as being responsible for a "no deal" Brexit.

"They’re saying to Boris, you insist this can be done another way. You have 30 days to produce what you, the British, could not produce in two years," he wrote on Twitter.

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