Merkel to Johnson: Germany is Ready for No Brexit Deal

Published August 22nd, 2019 - 11:19 GMT
Boris Johnson was greeted by Angela Merkel in Berlin this afternoon as he arrived in Germany for showdown Brexit talks (AFP/ File Photo)
Boris Johnson was greeted by Angela Merkel in Berlin this afternoon as he arrived in Germany for showdown Brexit talks (AFP/ File Photo)
Boris Johnson arrives in Berlin for Brexit talks with Angela Merkel and is welcomed with full military honours.

Angela Merkel delivered a Brexit boost to Boris Johnson today as she said ditching the backstop was possible if the UK can come forward with practical and workable alternatives within the next 30 days as she also insisted Germany is ready for a No Deal split. 

The German Chancellor said if the UK could solve the 'conundrum' of the Irish border protocol then she would be willing to listen to the proposals. 

Mr Johnson welcomed the 'blistering timetable' as he said he agreed the 'onus is on us to produce those solutions' as he suggested the previous government led by Theresa May had failed to adequately set out alternatives. 

The comments came as the pair met for the first time in Berlin for a working dinner this evening when Mr Johnson is expected to make clear that he is serious about taking the UK out of the EU by the current October 31 deadline with or without a deal. 

He is due to travel to Paris for a lunchtime meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron tomorrow as he attempts to persuade European leaders to renegotiate the terms of Britain's divorce from the bloc - something they have so far refused to do.

Berlin, Paris and Brussels had all earlier today preemptively ruled out shifting on the key issue of the backstop which Mr Johnson has insisted must be deleted for a deal to be done.

Allies of Ms Merkel said overnight that scrapping it would be 'completely impossible' while a French presidential aide said today Mr Macron was now working off the belief that No Deal is the 'most likely' scenario.

Meanwhile, Dublin said it would not be 'steam-rolled' over the Irish border protocol. 

Downing Street had cautioned against the idea that talks with Ms Merkel and Mr Macron would lead to a big breakthrough.

But Ms Merkel's admission that she is willing to listen to backstop alternatives will have delighted Downing Street because her comments suggest there could yet be movement on the issue which could unlock the path to a deal.      

However, despite a likely fresh sense of optimism in Number 10, an agreement between Britain and the EU still appears a long way off. 

Brussels will be deeply sceptical that the UK will be able to come up with alternatives to the backstop which are strong enough to ditch the insurance policy which was designed to ensure there is not a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event no agreement is reached on future trading terms. 

Separately, this afternoon Jeremy Corbyn invited opposition leaders and Tory Remainer rebels to meet on August 27 to discuss 'all tactics available to prevent No Deal'.

After Mr Johnson's arrival in Berlin, the two leaders delivered statements to the press and then took questions as Ms Merkel hinted at a potential way towards a Brexit resolution. 

She said the backstop had always been a 'fallback position' and would only come into effect if no other solution could be agreed that would protect the 'integrity of the single market'.

But she then added: 'If one is able to solve this conundrum, if one finds this solution, we said we would probably find it in the next two years to come but we can also maybe find it in the next 30 days to come.

'Then we are one step further in the right direction and we have to obviously put our all into this.'

Mr Johnson said the 'onus is on us' to produce solutions for the Northern Irish border issue and he welcomed the 'blistering timetable of 30 days' proposed by Ms Merkel in which to come up with the answers.

He added: 'I think what we need to do is remove it whole and entire - the backstop - and then work, as Chancellor Merkel says, on the alternative arrangements.

'There are abundant solutions which are proffered, which have already been discussed. I don't think, to be fair, they have so far been very actively proposed over the last three years by the British Government.

'You (Mrs Merkel) rightly say the onus is on us to produce those solutions, those ideas, to show how we can address the issue of the Northern Irish border and that is what we want to do.

'I must say I am very glad listening to you tonight Angela to hear that at least the conversations that matter can now properly begin.

'You have set a very blistering timetable of 30 days - if I understood you correctly, I am more than happy with that.'

Ms Merkel said she wanted to 'continue to have very close relations between the UK and the EU' once Britain has left the bloc and that her preference was for a deal to be done before October 31. 

But speaking about the prospect of a No Deal split, she said: 'We are prepared for it.'

Mr Johnson had used his opening remarks to initially try to charm Ms Merkel as he said it was 'obvious' that his first foreign trip as PM should be to Germany. 

But he then struck a tough tone as he said he wanted to be 'absolutely clear' about what needed to happen to allow the UK and EU to strike an agreement.  

He said: 'We in the UK want a deal. We seek a deal and I believe we can get one. 

'But clearly we cannot accept the current Withdrawal Agreement, arrangements that either divide the UK or lock us into the regulatory and trading arrangements of the EU without the UK having any say on those matters.

'We do need that backstop removed. If we can do that I am absolutely certain we can move forward together.'

Despite Ms Merkel's comments on the backstop she insisted that it would still be for the EU as a bloc to negotiate the way forward from a 'uniform, consistent position'. 

Mr Johnson's boost in Berlin came as Mr Corbyn made a fresh move to try to stitch together an anti-No Deal coalition in the House of Commons. 

The Labour leader this afternoon wrote to senior MPs from all parties to invite them to sit down with him on Tuesday next week. 

He said in the letter: 'The chaos and dislocation of Boris Johnson’s No Deal Brexit is real and threatening, as the government’s leaked Operation Yellowhammer dossier makes crystal clear. That’s why we must do everything we can to stop it.'

A French presidential aide had earlier rejected Mr Johnson's demand that the backstop be axed and contradicted the PM's claim that if Britain leaves the EU without a deal it would not have to pay a £39 billion divorce bill.

'The scenario that is becoming the most likely is one of No Deal,' the official said.

'The idea of saying 'there's not a deal, so I won't pay' does not work. We cannot imagine that a country like the UK would back out of an international commitment.'

The official added: 'There's no magic wand that makes this bill disappear.'

Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign affairs minister, said that while no one wanted to see the relationship between Ireland and the UK deteriorate, Dublin would not be dictated to by London.

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He said: 'We are not in the business of being steam-rolled at the end of this because a British prime minister has rolled out new red lines. That's not a reasonable approach.

'We are trying to manage relationships in a way that is consistent with the Good Friday Agreement.

'Ireland is a confident young country that expect to negotiate on an equal basis.

'If we didn't have the backstop we wouldn't have answers to how we solve the border challenge.

'The Withdrawal Agreement has a facilitation in it for multiple review mechanisms.'

Before travelling to Germany Mr Johnson had recommitted to his 'do or die' Brexit pledge and promised to make Britain the best country in the world as he prepared for his showdown with Ms Merkel. 

He tweeted a video this morning of his first speech on the steps of Downing Street cut with footage of the Red Arrows, the Union flag and the White Cliffs of Dover along with a hardline message that he will not agree to another Brexit delay. 

He tweeted: 'We're going to leave the EU on October 31st and make this country the best in the world to live in.'

Mr Johnson set out his stall earlier this week with an uncompromising letter to the EU in which he said the backstop border protocol must be scrapped for there to be any hope of a deal being done. 

The letter, sent to European Council president Donald Tusk, sparked a furious reaction from Brussels yesterday as the bloc doubled down on its insistence that the existing divorce deal cannot be changed. 

The kind of reception Mr Johnson had been expected to receive in Berlin was illustrated by Florian Hahn, European policy spokesman for Ms Merkel's party, who told The Times: 'There cannot and will not be new negotiations. 

'It is completely impossible that the backstop will be removed from the agreement or softened. 

'The only possible offer would be to agree more precise language for the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK after Brexit. But I fear this won't be enough for Boris Johnson.'  

Norbert Röttgen, another ally of Ms Merkel who is in charge of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, echoed a similar sentiment in comments reported by The Guardian. 

He said: 'The letter to the president of the European Council is not a serious offer, and Boris Johnson knows it.' 

He added: 'If Johnson really wanted to achieve something on his visits to Paris and Berlin, he would have been well advised against writing this letter.'

Meanwhile, a senior German official, asked by Politico what Ms Merkel would offer Mr Johnson on Brexit, replied: 'Nothing.' 

Mr Johnson said yesterday he would enter talks with Ms Merkel and Mr Macron 'with a lot of oomph' but both sides have been refusing to budge and remain locked in a state of stalemate. 

Allies of Mr Johnson believe his tough message that there will be a No Deal split unless the EU agrees to drop the backstop has hit home hard in Brussels. 

But many in the EU remain sceptical about whether Mr Johnson would actually go ahead with a bad break given the risk of it causing severe economic damage. 

With just 71 days until the Halloween deadline there is yet to be any significant movement at all from Brussels, setting up a potentially fraught eleventh hour dash to avoid a chaotic divorce in the run up to October 31. 

Speaking to reporters yesterday Mr Johnson reiterated his opposition to the backstop.

 He said: 'Don't forget why we're doing all of this. The existing agreement just doesn't work for the UK. And Parliament has thrown it out three times.

'We can't have this backstop. So I'm going to go to see our friends and partners - I'm going off to Germany and then to France, and then to see the G7 at Biarritz, and I'm going to make the point that the backstop is going to come out.'

Mr Johnson's trip to Berlin and then Paris has been designed to try to stop Brexit overshadowing the G7 summit which taking place this weekend.

In his letter to Mr Tusk, Mr Johnson said the backstop should be removed from the divorce deal ahead of the October 31 Brexit deadline.

But Mr Tusk defended the measure and warned that scrapping it risked a return to a hard border. 

Downing Street said that unless the backstop is abolished 'there is no prospect of a deal' being done between the two sides.  

Mr Tusk suggested Number 10 was being unrealistic and accused Mr Johnson of dishonesty.

He said: 'The backstop is an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found.

'Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support re-establishing a border. Even if they do not admit it.'

Responding, Mr Johnson said: 'We think there is a big opportunity now for everybody to come together, take out that backstop.'

He added: 'We will be looking at all the ways in which we can maintain frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border - whether it's trusted trader schemes, or electronic pre-clearing, or whatever it happens to be, all that kind of thing, checks away from the border, points of sale or whatever if you have to crack down on smuggling, all that kind of thing - but we will come up with those solutions, or agree those solutions I should say, in the context of the free-trade agreement.

'That's the way we are going to approach it. And you know what, at the moment it is absolutely true that our friends and partners are a bit negative.

'I saw what Donald Tusk had to say and it wasn't redolent of a sense of optimism. But I think actually we will get there.'

Mr Johnson is adamant that alternative arrangements can be found to allow the backstop to be deleted and give the deal a fighting chance of being agreed by MPs.   

The backstop was included in Mrs May's original Brexit deal as a last resort measure to be used in the event no overall trade deal has been struck by the two sides by the end of a transition period. 

It would effectively see existing EU rules on customs kept in place to ensure frictionless trade on the island of Ireland could continue and prevent the return of a hard border.

But Brexiteers hate it because if implemented it would last indefinitely, restrict the UK's ability to strike its own trade deal and getting out of it would require the agreement of both sides.

Mr Johnson has repeatedly labelled the protocol 'anti-democratic' since he won the keys to Downing Street last month.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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