Brexit: Boris Johnson’s hard line arouses Barnier’s suspicions

EU’s chief Brexit negotiator suggests Johnson is seeking to sow divisions among EU 27

Boris Johnson has reiterated his demand for the Northern Ireland backstop to be eliminated, telling MPs he will only negotiate with the European Union on that basis. But EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier rejected the demand as unacceptable and incompatible with the Brexit negotiating mandate agreed by European leaders.

In his first statement to the House of Commons as prime minister, Mr Johnson said Britain would leave the EU on October 31st, with or without a deal. He said he would prefer to leave with a deal but that the withdrawal agreement rejected three times by MPs could not form the basis of it.

“No country that values its independence, and indeed its self-respect, could agree to a treaty that signed away our economic independence and self-government, as this backstop does. A time limit is not enough. If an agreement is to be reached, it must be clearly understood that the way to the deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop,” he said.

He said his government was ready to negotiate an alternative to the withdrawal agreement but that the issue of the Border must be resolved as part of a future trading relationship after the UK leaves the EU.


"I do not accept the argument that says that these issues can be solved only by all or part of the UK remaining in the customs union or in the single market. The evidence is that other arrangements are perfectly possible, and are also perfectly compatible with the Belfast or Good Friday agreement, to which we are, of course, steadfastly committed. I, my team, and my right honourable friend the secretary of state for exiting the European Union are ready to meet and talk on this basis to the European Commission, or other EU colleagues, whenever and wherever they are ready to do so," he said.

Sow division

Mr Johnson spoke briefly on Thursday to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who told him the withdrawal agreement was the only deal available. And in a letter to EU ambassadors, Mr Barnier rejected the UK prime minister’s central demand and suggested Mr Johnson was seeking to sow divisions among the 27remaining member states.

“As suggested by his rather combative speech, we have to be ready for a situation where he gives priority to the planning for ‘no deal’, partly to heap pressure on the unity of the EU 27. In any case, what remains essential on our side is to remain calm, stick to our principles and guidelines and show solidarity and unity of the 27,” he said.

Conservative MPs cheered Mr Johnson as he entered the chamber and he delighted many of them with attacks on the Labour front bench and the Scottish National Party (SNP). Jeremy Corbyn said Mr Johnson had "hastily thrown together a hard-right cabinet" and questioned his newfound zeal in opposing the backstop since he was in cabinet when it was agreed and voted for the withdrawal agreement last March.

In response, Mr Johnson teased the Labour leader about his party’s recent contortions on Brexit and its support for a second referendum.

“A terrible metamorphosis has taken place – like the final scene of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, at last this long-standing Eurosceptic has been captured, has been jugulated, has been reprogrammed by his friends. He has been turned now into a Remainer – and of all the flip-flops of the tergiversating career, that is the one for which he will pay the highest price,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times