French president Emmanuel Macron on Thursday cast doubt on British prime minister Boris Johnson’s talk of a Brexit deal before October 31, saying any renegotiation of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement would leave it little changed from the original.
Mr Johnson said he was “powerfully encouraged” by his meeting on Wednesday with German chancellor Angela Merkel, when she expressed hope the UK and the EU could find a solution in the next 30 days to the vexed issue of the Irish border.
He is demanding an overhaul of the withdrawal agreement finalised between the EU and his predecessor Theresa May that would involve removing the so-called backstop — arrangements to avoid the return to a hard Irish border.
But Mr Macron, ahead of talks with Mr Johnson at the Elysée palace in Paris, said the backstop was an “indispensable” part of the accord.
He agreed the two sides should be able to find “something intelligent in 30 days if there is goodwill on all sides” but only if the changes did not affect the EU’s core demands on Ireland and the European single market.
“In the coming month we are not going to find a new withdrawal agreement that is far from the original,” said Mr Macron.
“If there are things in the framework of what was negotiated by [EU chief negotiator] Michel Barnier that can be adapted and conform with the two objectives I mentioned — stability in Ireland and integrity of the single market — we should find it in the coming month.
“If not, it means the problem is deeper, it’s political, it’s a British political problem and at that point it’s not a negotiation that can solve it — it’s a political choice that the prime minister [Mr Johnson] will have to make. It’s not up to us.”
Mr Johnson is insisting the UK will leave the EU on the designated departure date of October 31, with or without a deal.
He reiterated in Paris that Britain would not impose any controls on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
He also expressed confidence that alternatives to the backstop could be found to enable trade across the border without checks, adding these could involve “trusted trader” schemes, among other things.
Mr Johnson said: “Of course I want a deal and think we can get a deal and a good deal.”
A senior French official said the two-hour meeting between Mr Macron and Mr Johnson was “constructive”, with the two leaders wishing to pursue their contacts before the end of September “to try to reach an agreement that respected the fundamental European principles” noted by Mr Macron on Ireland and the EU single market.
Inside the French government, Mr Johnson’s hardline Brexit stance is seen as a “Trumpian” attempt to present himself to UK voters as a decisive nationalist, rather than a genuine effort to wrest concessions on the withdrawal agreement he knows will not be forthcoming from the EU.
A senior EU official said European leaders “expect details” from Mr Johnson about how to replace the backstop or talks would go nowhere at the G7 summit to be hosted by Mr Macron in Biarritz at the weekend.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president who will represent the EU at the summit, will meet Mr Johnson.
The EU official said there was now “concern” following Mr Johnson’s visit to Berlin that “we may have to wait at least 30 days to get some detailed plans from London”.
A no-deal Brexit was now the “working assumption” of the bloc, given the UK government’s determination to leave the EU on October 31, added the official.
Ms Merkel on Thursday clarified her 30-day comment, saying she had not given Mr Johnson 30 days to find a solution to the backstop but had just wanted to highlight how little time was left.
“It is not about 30 days,” she said. “The 30 days were meant as an example to highlight the fact that we need to achieve it in a short time because Britain had said they want to leave the European Union on October 31.”