U.K. Government Optimistic that Brexit Talks Can Begin Again

By and | August 27, 2019

The U.K. government sees an opportunity to restart Brexit negotiations with the European Union after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s meetings last week with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two leaders appeared to relax their language on the Brexit withdrawal agreement and the need to retain the so-called backstop provision for the Irish border, a U.K. official said on condition of anonymity. Johnson has demanded the EU drop the backstop, a fallback mechanism that is meant to keep the frontier free of checks after Brexit but which is despised by Brexiteers who argue it will keep the U.K. tied to the bloc.

Meanwhile the leaders of U.K. opposition parties seeking to block a no-deal split from the EU held a closed-doors meeting, convened by Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, to discuss what they’ll do when Parliament returns next week.

Earlier this month, Labour proposed they should call a vote of no-confidence in Johnson’s government, with a view to installing Corbyn as a caretaker prime minister, mandated to delay Brexit and call an election. That idea was rejected by both rebel Conservatives and some on the opposition benches. Instead, the statements after Tuesday’s meeting focused on finding legislative routes to stopping a no-deal Brexit.

Brexit Strategy

That sets up the prospect of a fight in the House of Commons after Parliament returns from its summer recess.

The pound extended gains, with investors citing a warmer tone from Brussels and plans to coordinate opposition to a no-deal split as reasons for the rally.

Both Merkel and Macron seemed willing to engage in talks on Johnson’s concerns and suggestions for alternative technology-based solutions, including trusted trader programs, the U.K. official said. That could pave the way for the EU to agree to reopen the deal negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, the official said.

Johnson has repeatedly said he wants a new deal but has also been clear that he’ll take the U.K. out of the EU regardless on Oct. 31. Following talks in Berlin and Paris last week, and with European Council President Donald Tusk on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in France over the weekend, the focus is on trying to create space for negotiations, the official said.

Later on Tuesday, Johnson will speak by phone to outgoing EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker to press his position, and next month he’s due to visit Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar in Dublin.

Dublin Influence

The trip to Ireland will be crucial to any compromise with the EU over the backstop, which the EU regards as necessary to both protect its single market and ensure the peace process in Northern Ireland isn’t jeopardized by Brexit. Following a call with Johnson on Tuesday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Twitter the EU is open to any “concrete proposals” from the U.K. as long as they’re consistent with those aims.

But even if Johnson is successful in removing the backstop from the deal, he still faces a fight at home from both sides of the Brexit argument.

Nigel Farage said his Brexit Party has now selected candidates for every parliamentary constituency and is ready to fight a general election. “Can you trust Boris Johnson on this issue?” he asked the audience at a party event in central London. “No!” they chorused. “Can you trust the Conservative Party on this issue?” “No!” they replied.

Farage called the withdrawal agreement as negotiated by May “a betrayal” of the 2016 referendum result and warned that if Johnson tries to push it through, the Brexit Party would run against his Conservative Party in every constituency. While they might struggle to win many seats, they could take enough votes away from the Tories to seriously damage them. Farage said his message to Johnson is “deliver or politically die.”

–With assistance from Charlotte Ryan.

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