PARIS (AP) — France joined Germany on Thursday in challenging British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to show he can come up with a better alternative to the main sticking point in the stalled Brexit negotiations, giving him a month to prove he can break the deadlock on the Irish border question.
Johnson tried to exude confidence and charm in Paris as he pressed French President Emmanuel Macron to accept his request to reopen Brexit negotiations. He called Macron by his first name, spoke at times in French, even casually put his foot on Macron’s coffee table in a bid to appear relaxed.
But like German leader Angela Merkel the day before, Macron just smiled indulgently and dampened British expectations, stressing “we have to respect what was negotiated.”
“In the coming month, we won’t find a new deal that would be far away from what we have,” Macron said.
Macron also reiterated what the EU has been saying for months — that it won’t re-open the Brexit divorce deal negotiated with Britain’s previous prime minister, Theresa May.
The sticking point remains the question of Ireland and its border with Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. Border checkpoints there were a flashpoint for sectarian violence in the past and some fear their reintroduction could damage the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland.
The Brexit deal includes an insurance policy known as the Irish backstop, which but would keep the U.K. closely aligned in trade with the EU. Johnson is strongly against having any checkpoints on that border and does not want Northern Ireland to be treated differently than the rest of the UK.
Macron described the backstop as indispensable, but cracked a window in saying that if Ireland could be safeguarded, some movement would be possible, joining Merkel in raising the possibility that a negotiated departure from the EU may still be possible if Britain comes up with alternative plans that would safeguard the Irish border.
Merkel even went a bit further Thursday, suggesting that the idea of a 30-day deadline was a guideline. She told reporters during a visit to the Netherlands that “it would be better to say one can achieve that by Oct. 31.”
Macron said he agreed with Merkel that “something clever” could be found within that period. Both also stressed that it wasn’t just up to them: the negotiations led by the European Commission have to be accepted by all 27 EU member states.
It was clear that such concessions did not reach to substantially changing the hard-won Brexit deal. But it was also clear that everyone involved would prefer some sort of Brexit deal rather than the likely economic distress that a no-deal exit will bring.
“The no-deal will never be the choice of the EU,” EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told The Associated Press on Thursday. “Never.”
In Brussels, senior EU officials said the bloc wants to hear details of any alternative backstop plan that Johnson might have and hoped that they won’t have to wait 30 days for that.
Johnson is seeking concessions from the EU to win support in the British Parliament, which has already rejected the Brexit agreement negotiated by May three times. Johnson became prime minister last month when May stepped down after failing to secure parliamentary approval for the Brexit divorce deal.
The EU has twice delayed Britain’s departure date, which is now scheduled for Oct. 31. Johnson says Britain will leave the EU on that date, with or without an agreement, raising concerns about the economic fallout on both sides of the English Channel. Other EU nations make up Britain’s largest trading partner.
Kirka reported from London. Frank Jordans in Berlin and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.
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