Too late for new Brexit deal, France's Macron tells Johnson

August 23, 2019 07:37
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson briefly rests his foot on a coffee table during his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron told the United Kingdom's Prime Minister Boris Johnson that there is not enough time to wholly rewrite the Brexit divorce deal before an Oct. 31 deadline, Reuters reports.

Johnson met Macron at the Elysee Palace on Thursday, a day after talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who challenged Britain to come up with acceptable alternatives to the agreed safety net provision for the UK-Irish land border. 

More than three years after the UK voted to quit the European Union, it is still unclear on what terms – or indeed whether – the bloc’s second-largest economy will leave the club it joined in 1973.

Talks over lunch were constructive, a French official said.

Macron left the door open to Britain seeking a solution to the Irish “backstop”, but said any alternative must respect both the integrity of the EU single market and stability on the divided island of Ireland.

“I want to be very clear,” he said. “In the month ahead, we will not find a new withdrawal agreement that deviates far from the original.”

Though Johnson may have taken a month to embark on his first trip abroad, he was quick to make himself at home in Macron’s gilded palace, putting his feet up on the furniture.

Never shy to play the clown during his political career, Johnson was filmed joking to the cameras and briefly resting his foot on a coffee table at the Elysee courtyard, before waving at photographers in the room. Macron watched on, looking amused.

The UK leader has warned Merkel and Macron that they face a potentially disorderly no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31 unless the EU does a new deal.

Speaking in The Hague, Merkel said she had not meant to set a deadline when saying on Wednesday that a solution to the Irish border issue could be found within 30 days, but to “highlight the urgency”.

The British pound, sensitive to the prospect of a "no-deal" exit, rose 1 percent against both the dollar and the euro on her comments.

'Let's get Brexit done'

Johnson told Macron that he believed it was possible to agree a deal before Oct. 31, and that he had been “powerfully encouraged” by what he had heard from Merkel on Wednesday.

“Let’s get Brexit done, let’s get it done sensibly and pragmatically and in the interests of both sides and let’s not wait until October 31,” Johnson said. “Let’s get on now in deepening and intensifying the friendship and partnership between us.”

Johnson, an ardent Brexiteer, is betting that the threat of "no-deal" Brexit turmoil will convince Merkel and Macron that the EU should do a last-minute deal to suit his demands. He has repeated promises to leave on Oct. 31 – with or without a deal.

Macron insisted Britain’s destiny lay in Johnson’s hands alone. He said the EU did not want a "no-deal" scenario, but would be ready if it happened.

The political crisis in London over Brexit has left allies and investors puzzled by a country that for decades seemed a confident pillar of Western economic and political stability.

Many investors say a "no-deal" Brexit would hurt the economies of Britain, the EU and the wider world, roil financial markets and weaken London’s position as the pre-eminent international financial center.

Macron said that any new solution to the problem of the Irish border had to be found in the next month.

Signaling that the ball was in the UK’s court, he said: “If we cannot find alternatives, then it will be because of a deeper problem, a political one, a British political problem.

“And for that, negotiations can’t help. It will be up to the prime minister to make that choice, it won’t be up to us.”

Irish border

After Brexit, the frontier between Ireland and the UK province of Northern Ireland will be the only land border between the EU’s single market and Britain. 

The EU wants to ensure that it does not become a back door for goods to enter the single market – which guarantees free movement of goods, capital, services and labor.

Ireland for its part says physical checks could undermine the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after more than 3,600 died in a three-decade conflict between unionists who wanted the province to remain British and Irish nationalists who want it to join a united Ireland ruled from Dublin.

The backstop, negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, provides for Britain to remain in a temporary customs union with the EU after Brexit, avoiding the need for any "hard" border infrastructure, until a better solution is found.

But Johnson said in Paris: “Under no circumstances will the UK government be instituting, imposing checks or controls of any kind at that border. We think there are ways of protecting the integrity of the single market and allowing the UK to exit from the EU.”

Brexit supporters acknowledge that there may be short-term disruption from a "no-deal" exit but say the UK will thrive if cut free from what they cast as a doomed experiment in integration that has led Europe to fall behind China and the United States.

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