LONDON: Brexit talks between Britain and the European Union teetered on the verge of collapse on Tuesday, with tit-for-tat claims of intransigence and sabotage before an end-October deadline.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as he tried to salvage new divorce terms he has proposed ahead of next week’s pivotal EU summit in Brussels.
Unusually, Downing Street then provided a readout of what Merkel allegedly said, provoking an incendiary tweet from EU Council President Donald Tusk.
According to London, Merkel demanded a rewrite of Britain’s approach to the long-vexing Irish border problem that made a compromise “essentially impossible”.
The Downing Street official quoted Merkel as saying that a deal now looked “overwhelming unlikely”, and added that the Brexit talks were “close to breaking down”.
Britain has been trying for more than three years to find a way to deliver on the result of a 2016 referendum and end its almost five-decade involvement in the European project.
Riding a wave of British frustrations with the saga, Johnson is threatening to leave at any cost — with or without a withdrawal deal — on October 31.
In Berlin, Merkel’s office said it would not comment “on such confidential discussions”. Johnson’s official spokesman also declined to say anything about the substance of the call.
But he told reporters the pair had a “frank exchange” — diplomatic speak for a disagreement.
The further spokesman rejected Tusk’s blunt accusation that Johnson was playing “some stupid blame game” by having his office leak the detail of private talks.
A frustrated Tusk accused Britain of playing with “the future of Europe and the UK” with no clear plan of what the country wanted.
Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said he found it “hard to disagree” with Tusk, stressing that Dublin would “not strike a deal at any cost”.
Johnson talked to his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar for 40 minutes. “Both sides strongly reiterated their desire to reach a Brexit deal,” a Downing Street spokesman said. The pair could meet in person later this week, he added.
Although Johnson’s Brexit negotiators were still meeting various European officials, much of the focus is shifting to what happens after the talks are formally pronounced dead.
The Irish government published a 2020 spending plan with a 1.2-billion-euro ($1.3 billion) relief fund based on the assumption that there will be no agreement. The UK government also released updated preparations for a “no deal” exit at the end of the month, indicating it was increasingly expecting the outcome.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies think-tank, however, warned that “even a relatively benign no-deal Brexit” would see Britain’s debt burden surge to 50-year highs.
On the markets, the pound slipped to its lowest value against the euro in about a month.
Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2019