Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s comments about Brexit – and especially the Irish backstop – have been met with derision from the continent. After Mr Johnson’s speech in Parliament on July 25, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said it was “unacceptable” to ditch the backstop and called Mr Johnson’s language “combative”. And he’s not the only one to remark on the new PM.
Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, also made his feelings clear in his shortest letter of congratulations to a new British Prime Minister.
He wrote: “On behalf of the European Council, I would like to congratulate you on your appointment as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“I look forward to meeting you to discuss – in detail – our cooperation.”
The message was much less warm than Mr Tusk’s letter to Theresa May in 2016, in which the President said he looked forward to the “fruitful working relationship”.
But despite the animosity, Mr Barnier has insisted the EU was prepared to “work constructively” to find a solution to the issues in the Withdrawal agreement – namely the backstop – with Mr Johnson.
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EU news: Boris Johnson said he is committed to “getting rid” of the Brexit backstop
What is the Brexit backstop?
The backstop is a safety net for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – the only land border the UK shares with the EU.
The backstop is intended to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, regardless of what happens in negotiations.
The backstop is a “last resort” and would only be triggered if no trade solution was negotiated, and would allow frictionless trade to continue in Ireland until a solution was found.
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What does Boris Johnson think?
In his first statement as Prime Minister in the House of Commons, he said: “No country that values its independence, and indeed its self-respect, could agree to a treaty which signed away our economic independence and self-government as this backstop does.”
Responding to questions from MPs, he said he was committed to “getting rid” of the backstop, describing it as “divisive” and “anti-democratic”.
He said: “It poses that appalling choice to the British government and the British people – to the United Kingdom – of losing control of our trade, losing control of our regulation or else surrendering the government of the United Kingdom.”
But, as with almost everything in the Brexit negotiations, there isn’t a simple solution, and the EU view the backstop quite differently.
What does the EU think?
After the speech, Mr Barnier sent a note to European leaders, repeating the EU’s position that getting rid of the backstop was “of course unacceptable”, and labelling Mr Johnson’s speech “rather combative”.
But despite disagreements over the backstop, he added the EU was prepared to “work constructively, within our own mandate”.
Mr Barnier also said the EU prepared to consider “any UK idea on withdrawal issues that are compatible with the existing withdrawal agreement”.
EU new: Michel Barnier called Mr Johnson’s language “combative”
Concerning the possibility of a no deal, he said it would not be “the EU’s choice” but added: “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 EU27.
“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.”
Brussels correspondent Nick Gutteridge shared an interesting insight into the EU’s perception of the backstop, seen by so many in the UK camp as toxic.
He said the EU agrees with the position that the backstop is ‘toxic’ – but for quite a different reason.
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EU news: Johnson has committed to “getting rid” of the Brexit backstop
He wrote in a tweet: “EU negotiators acknowledge the Withdrawal Agreement is ‘toxic’ and are aware why, even if they don’t understand the British reasoning.
“They see the backstop as a rare UK triumph, securing tariff and quota-free access to the Single Market with few of the usual strings attached.”
He went on to report how an EU official said the Withdrawal Agreement would allow the UK to remain in a “quasi Customs Union”, adding: “No tariffs, no quantitative restrictions and no other impediments with respect to quotas – something the EU has never given to any other country in the world except Norway.
“The UK-wide backstop also sets a precedent ahead of future trade talks by giving Britain that quite significant quota and tariff-free access to the EU market before negotiations have even begun.
“As one official put it they see it as ‘a kind of gift from the EU’ in that regard.”