PARIS, (AFP): French leader Emmanuel Macron backed the idea of further talks to find a solution to Brexit while ruling out major concessions as he met British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday.
Like German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday, Macron supported allowing another 30 days to find a solution to the vexed issue of the Irish border which has bedevilled negotiations since 2017.
“We need to try to have a useful month,” Macron said alongside Johnson who insisted that solutions were “readily available” to prevent checkpoints returning in divided Ireland.
But the French leader, who admitted he had a reputation as the “hardest in the gang” on Brexit, has rejected Johnson’s calls to scrap a key arrangement for Ireland negotiated between the EU and former British premier Theresa May.
At stake is the so-called “backstop”, which is a provision guaranteeing that border checks will not return between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland which is part of Britain.
The backstop provided “indispensible guarantees to preserve stability in Ireland and the integrity of the single market,” Macron added.
Johnson wants the backstop removed and has called it “anti-democratic” because it will require London to keep its regulations aligned with the EU during a transitional period when the country is no longer a member of the bloc.
“The technical solutions are readily available (to avoid checkpoints) and they have been discussed at great length,” Johnson said.
The EU remains unconvinced and argues the backstop is necessary to avoid the re-emergence of a border which could lead to a return of fighting on the island where anti-British violence has claimed thousands of lives.
– ‘A little concerned’ –
A senior EU official in Brussels told reporters on Thursday ahead of the talks in Paris that the European side was “a little concerned based on what we heard yesterday” in Berlin.
“We are waiting for new facts, workable ideas,” the official added.
Since Johnson’s ascent to power last month, the chances of a “no deal” Brexit on October 31 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,” the EU official said on condition of anonymity.
A French official said 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.
Speaking in the Netherlands later on Thursday, Merkel said Britain had right up to the current deadline for Brexit of October 31 to find a solution to the Irish border problem, beyond the 30-day window she mentioned on Wednesday.
– Glimmer of hope? –
The Paris visit was the second leg of Johnson’s first foreign trip as prime minister.
On Wednesday, he was in Berlin for talks with Merkel who offered him time to try to find a breakthrough.
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, a Europe analyst 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.
– Blame game –
Johnson has staked his leadership on withdrawing Britain from the EU by the current deadline of October 31 “do or die”.
Some analysts see a risk of relations between Macron and him becoming stormy in public, but the two men smiled and slapped each other on the back as they appeared on the steps of a sun-lit Elysee palace and at the end of two hours of talks.
Johnson reportedly once called the French “turds” over their stance on Brexit during his time as foreign secretary — remarks he later said he could not recall.
Macron pre-empted any attempt to deflect blame onto the European side during a press conference on Wednesday before Johnson’s arrival.
“It will be the responsibility of the British government, always, because firstly it was the British people that decided Brexit, and the British government has the possibility up to the last second to revoke Article 50,” he said.
Article 50 is the legal mechanism used by EU members states to withdraw from the bloc which was triggered by Britain in March 2017.
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