The European Union is rapidly losing faith that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson can deliver a divorce deal by the Oct. 31 deadline, as Brexit talks stumble.
EU officials view Johnson’s inflammatory rhetoric against his opponents as a hindrance and have all but given up on a breakthrough over the next five weeks. EU confidence in the prime minister’s political strategy and his ability to win Parliament’s approval is eroding fast, according to four people familiar with the negotiations.
In London, however, Johnson’s controversial strategist Dominic Cummings risked fueling the tensions in a rare public statement attacking critics of the government’s hard-line strategy. Speaking at a book launch, Cummings said Johnson’s team was “enjoying” the battle and argued that members of Parliament shouldn’t be “complaining” that voters are angry with them for frustrating Brexit.
Aside from divergences on substance, the two sides can’t agree on where the effort to keep the U.K. from departing without a deal stands. While the British government has said that talks are making progress, the EU views Johnson’s proposals as lacking detail and seriousness.
It’s a sign of how trust has eroded between the U.K. and its biggest trading partner since the 2016 referendum to leave the EU. Ever since, Britain has plunged deeper and deeper into political crisis, leaving markets befuddled, businesses on edge and voters confused.
Top-level talks are resuming in Brussels on Friday after days of high drama in London that saw the U.K.’s highest court repudiate Johnson by declaring his suspension of Parliament illegal. The prime minister fought back, rebuffing opponents who want him to delay Brexit if there’s no deal and mocking the law banning a no-deal Brexit as a surrender.
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The U.K.’s political chaos is no longer a sideshow and is having a detrimental effect on the negotiations, the people said. EU leaders will refuse to negotiate at the Oct. 17-18 summit, officials said, meaning that any deal would have to be done before then.
If not, fellow EU leaders would give the U.K. a take-it-or-leave-it offer on delaying Brexit again or discussing contingencies for a divorce with no future arrangement, officials said. Johnson says he’ll take the U.K. out of the EU on Oct. 31 with or without an agreement.
The tension is keeping expectations low for Friday’s talks between Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
Also fading is a burst of EU optimism that the U.K. government might present more credible proposals for post-Brexit commerce across the Irish border after the Conservative Party’s annual conference next week.
Johnson wants to replace the so-called backstop that prevents a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic with other arrangements so the U.K. doesn’t remain in a customs union with the EU. The U.K. has presented the EU with four documents in recent days outlining some of its ideas and believes it has made compromise in accepting that Northern Ireland can remain in the same agri-food zone as the Republic.
While that’s drawn some positive reaction in Brussels, both sides acknowledge it doesn’t come close to solving the broader question of customs checks on animal products and goods crossing the Irish border. In the EU’s view, keeping Northern Ireland in its customs union is probably the only solution, but that’s something Johnson has ruled out.
In another day of dramatic developments in Westminster:
- The government suffered another defeat when Members of Parliament voted to reject a short recess for the Conservative Party conference in Manchester from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2
- Johnson came under fire from all sides in Parliament for refusing to obey the Benn Act, which requires him to delay the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline if he can’t get a deal
- In a private meeting with Conservative MPs, Johnson said he won’t be bullied into abandoning his inflammatory language and said “Surrender Act” is a fair description of the law
- He acknowledged it will be difficult to get the general election he wants before Oct. 31
- The government and House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said an election before Nov. 5 is now impossible based on current rules. However, MPs could vote to overwrite those rules.
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