EU leaders congratulate Johnson but signal firm line on deal
Brussels offers to talk but indicates unwillingness to revisit withdrawal agreement
French president Emmanuel Macron and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Tuesday. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images
European Union leaders were singing off the same hymn sheet following Boris Johnson’s election as Conservative Party leader – and the tune was unchanged.
They politely congratulated Mr Johnson on his election, said they were looking forward to working with him, “constructively”, some added, and then made clear that the indispensable withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK remains non-negotiable.
Jean-Claude Juncker’s response was instantaneous. The European Commission president was in Malta, but his spokeswoman said within seconds of the announcement of Mr Johnson’s victory that he wanted to “send his congratulations” and pledged to work with him.
Ursula von der Leyen, who will succeed Mr Juncker, and French president Emmanuel Macron, echoed the sentiments. “We have the duty to deliver something which is good for people in Europe and in the UK,” Ms von der Leyen said.
Speaking in French alongside Mr Macron before a meeting at the Élysée in Paris, she said: “We work for a Europe that is strong and united . . . that is ambitious about climate, digital matters, growth and the economy, and also security and defence.”
We look forward to working constructively w/ PM @BorisJohnson when he takes office, to facilitate the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement and achieve an orderly #Brexit. We are ready also to rework the agreed Declaration on a new partnership in line with #EUCO guidelines.— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) July 23, 2019
Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was blunter, clearly hinting at the difficulties ahead in suggesting the matter of their co-operation: “We look forward to working constructively w[ith] PM Johnson when he takes office, to facilitate the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement and achieve an orderly Brexit,” he said in a tweet.
He promised flexibility from Brussels in talks on the EU-UK future relationship, but in line with the European Council’s negotiating mandate.
The commission’s deputy head Frans Timmermans, speaking to journalists shortly ahead of the announcement of Mr Johnson’s win, said: “The United Kingdom reached an agreement with the European Union and the European Union will stick to that agreement . . . This is the best deal possible.”
He said the EU would not be changing its approach to the talks with the UK – Johnson’s flamboyant “character or persona or attitude” made no difference.
The chairman of the MEPs’ Brexit steering group, Guy Verhofstadt, said the committee would hold an extraordinary meeting on Wednesday with Mr Barnier. It would issue a statement afterwards, which is expected to reiterate the importance of maintaining the Northern Ireland backstop.
Diplomatic sources were adamant that the firm, united line from member states and the EU institutions on the withdrawal agreement was genuine and not just for show.
Member states have been disappointed by hardening campaign commitments by Mr Johnson to rip up the backstop, which they see as indispensable, and utterly reject the idea that the Border could be dealt with after Brexit in the future relationship talks. That approach had been rejected more than three years ago.
A Belgian source said it was determined to continue to stand by a fellow small state.
Persistent rumours, emanating from London, that the commission is preparing a last-minute concession by drafting a timetable for exiting the backstop in response to UK demands for an exit clause are vigorously denied. “Wishful thinking, but nonsense,” said one diplomat.