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UK's Johnson presses for fresh Brexit talks in Paris

  • 22 Aug 2019

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace a day after talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, pressing them to accept his request to reopen Brexit negotiations.

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speak during a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, August 22, 2019. ( Reuters )

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson exuded confidence on Thursday as he pressed French President Emmanuel Macron to accept his request to reopen Brexit negotiations, meeting in Paris on the second stop of his first European tour as UK leader.

After ticking off examples of close ties between the two countries, Johnson turned on a charm offensive, stressing that the UK wants a Brexit deal with EU. 

But even as he chummily called the French leader by his first name, Johnson added it was his duty to carry out the wishes of the British people, who by a narrow margin voted to leave the EU.

"As you yourself have just pointed out, Emmanuel, it is vital for trust in politics, that if you have a referendum, then you should act on the instructions of the voters. And that is why we must come out of the EU October 31, deal or no-deal," Johnson said. "Then, of course, we can take our relationship forward. I agree with you wholeheartedly Emmanuel that it is a quite extraordinary relationship."

Macron backs further Brexit talks

But even as he smiled for the cameras, Macron dampened expectations, stressing "we have to respect what was negotiated." 

Like German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday, Macron supported allowing another 30 days to find a solution to the vexed issue of the Irish border which has bedevilled negotiations since 2017.

"We need to try to have a useful month," Macron said alongside Johnson who insisted that solutions were "readily available" to prevent checkpoints returning in divided Ireland.

But the French leader, who admitted he had a reputation as the "hardest in the gang" on Brexit, has rejected Johnson's calls to scrap a key arrangement for Ireland negotiated between the EU and former British premier Theresa May.

At stake is the so-called "backstop", which is a provision guaranteeing that border checks will not return between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland which is part of Britain.

The backstop provided "indispensible guarantees to preserve stability in Ireland and the integrity of the single market," Macron added.

'A little concerned'

A senior EU official in Brussels told reporters on Thursday ahead of the talks in Paris that the European side was "a little concerned based on what we heard yesterday" in Berlin.

"We are waiting for new facts, workable ideas," the official added.

Since Johnson's ascent to power last month, the chances of a "no deal" Brexit on October 31 have risen, which economists see as likely to wreak economic damage on Britain and the EU.

"The EU and member states need to take the possibility of a 'no deal' outcome much more seriously than before," the EU official said on condition of anonymity.

A French official said on Wednesday that this was becoming the "most likely" scenario.

But the window offered by France and Germany to Johnson to find a solution led to renewed optimism in financial markets, where the pound rose by as much as 1.0 percent against the euro and dollar.

Speaking in the Netherlands later on Thursday, Merkel said Britain had right up to the current deadline for Brexit of October 31 to find a solution to the Irish border problem, beyond the 30-day window she mentioned on Wednesday.

Glimmer of hope? 

The Paris visit was the second leg of Johnson's first foreign trip as prime minister.

On Wednesday, he was in Berlin for talks with Merkel who offered him time to try to find a breakthrough.

Johnson said that he had been "powerfully encouraged" by his talks with Germany's leader. "I admire that 'can do' spirit that she seemed to have," he said.

But many Brexit watchers saw Merkel's remarks as fitting a pattern in which Merkel has often been more conciliatory in public about Brexit than Macron, whose abrasive remarks have angered London in the past.

"There is not the width of cigarette paper between Paris and Berlin on these issues," a senior aide to Macron said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

Mujtaba Rahman, a Europe analyst for the Eurasia Group consultancy, interpreted the offer of talks as a minor concession designed to avoid the EU being seen as being responsible for a "no-deal" Brexit.

"They’re saying to Boris, you insist this can be done another way. You have 30 days to produce what you, the British, could not produce in two years," he wrote on Twitter.

Blame game

Johnson has sta ked his leadership on withdrawing Britain from the EU by the current deadline of October 31 "do or die".

Some analysts see a risk of relations between Macron and him becoming stormy in public, but the two men smiled and slapped each other on the back as they appeared on the steps of a sun-lit Elysee palace and at the end of two hours of talks.

Johnson reportedly once called the French "turds" over their stance on Brexit during his time as foreign secretary -- remarks he later said he could not recall.

Macron pre-empted any attempt to deflect blame onto the European side during

Johnson met Macron at the Elysee Palace a day after talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who challenged Britain to come up with acceptable alternatives to the agreed safety net provision for the UK-Irish land border.

a press conference on Wednesday before Johnson's arrival.

"It will be the responsibility of the British government, always, because firstly it was the British people that decided Brexit, and the British government has the possibility up to the last second to revoke Article 50," he said.

Article 50 is the legal mechanism used by EU members states to withdraw from the bloc which was triggered by Britain in March 2017.

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