Brexit: Macron and Johnson to continue talks in hopes of reaching accord

Macron stresses ‘fundamental principles’ of Irish stability and integrity of single market

British prime minister Boris Johnson and  French president Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace after their meeting. Photograph: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA

British prime minister Boris Johnson and French president Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace after their meeting. Photograph: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA

 

French president Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with British prime minister Boris Johnson ended on a hopeful note on Thursday, with the French government saying talks between the two countries would continue into next month.

The Élysée said both leaders “want the exchange between the UK and the EU to continue from now through the end of September, to try to reach an accord that respects the fundamental European principles which the president reiterated”.

Those “fundamental principles”, stressed over and over by Mr Macron, are stability in Ireland and the integrity of the EU’s single market. The French president was adamant there can be no agreement unless both are guaranteed.

Referring to the possibility of a hard border in Ireland, which would be the logical result of Mr Johnson’s desire to abandon the backstop, Mr Macron told the Presidential Press Association: “We are being asked to choose between the integrity of the European market and the respect of the Good Friday Agreement. We cannot make such a choice.”

The leaders’ two-hour lunch at the Élysée did little to dispel the fog enshrouding seemingly irreconcilable positions. Yet the ambience was surprisingly jovial, perhaps aided by perfect weather.

Entrenched roles

The leaders played their by-now entrenched roles as naughty, jokey Boris and earnest Emmanuel. Mr Macron appeared amused by the British prime minister’s antics. He stopped smiling only when the backstop and Border were mentioned, making it clear that these remain the crux of the problem.

“I’ve always been portrayed as the tough guy,” Mr Macron admitted.

Other EU leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, have attempted to prolong the Brexit process in the hope a British departure could be avoided.

Mr Macron believes Brexit is inevitable, and that what he calls “procrastination” prevents the EU advancing.

Mr Macron told the association that the 2016 referendum was organised “in a simplistic manner, and without sufficient explanation”. He said only “new political facts” such as a general election or a second referendum could justify a further Brexit postponement. “Until the last second, the British government will have the possibility of withdrawing article 50 [which it invoked to initiate Brexit],” he said.

'As a friend and ally of the UK, I want to say that it is up to the UK alone to choose its destiny'

On Wednesday night, Dr Merkel said she thought an accord could be reached in 30 days rather than two years. It was not clear whether she referred to the two years it took to negotiate the present accord, which the British parliament has repeatedly refused to ratify, or the two years foreseen to negotiate Britain’s post-Brexit relations with the EU.

“As a friend and ally of the UK, I want to say that it is up to the UK alone to choose its destiny,” Mr Macron said. “The manner of its leaving the EU will be the foundation of its future relationship with Europe. ”

Mr Macron and Mr Johnson both said the choice of the British people must be respected. But they differed regarding responsibility for the consequences of Brexit.

Obtain access

By promising that “under no circumstances will the UK government be instituting or imposing checks or controls at the [Irish] Border,” Mr Johnson seemed to wash his hands of responsibility for the risk of destablising Ireland. Le Monde newspaper interpreted his comments as an attempt to obtain access to the EU market without controls.

Mr Johnson said there were “ways of protecting the integrity of the single market and allowing the UK to exit from the EU whole and entire and perfect, as it were.”

The prime minister claimed “technical solutions are readily available” to prevent a hard border in Ireland, including “trusted-trader schemes” and “electronic pre-clearing of goods”.

He referred to a report by the conservative MP Greg Hands which details “ways in which you can check for contraband, check origin, stop smuggling but not have checks at the frontier. That’s the solution.”

Experts say veterinary checks are the most difficult hurdle, since livestock must be examined to determine whether it is healthy. Mr Hands advocates a single UK-Ireland zone for food standards and animal health, a solution unacceptable to Ireland.

I expect clarifications from Mr Johnson. We must be serious

The backstop foreseen in the negotiated withdrawal agreement was “not just about technical constraints or legal quibbling, but genuine, indispensable guarantees to preserve stability in Ireland and the integrity of the single market,” Mr Macron said.

Downing Street’s recent statement that the freedom of movement for non-British nationals will end from day one of Brexit visibly irked Mr Macron.

“I expect clarifications from Mr Johnson. We must be serious,” he said, mentioning the huge numbers of French citizens living in the UK and vice versa.