Boris Johnson will meet French President Emmanuel Macron later – and he is expected to receive a brutal assessment of the EU’s position on Brexit.
Mr Johnson and Mr Macron will meet in Paris after German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave the prime minister hope by suggesting a potential solution to the Irish border backstop could be found within 30 days.
On Wednesday, she said the “conundrum” could be solved if Mr Johnson came up with an alternative to the arrangement, which is designed to avoid the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
But Mr Macron is likely to give a more confrontational response to the PM’s Brexit demands than the one he received at a dinner of tuna tartare, Brandenburg venison and chocolate tart in Berlin.
Prompting suggestions Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron are employing a “good cop, bad cop” approach to Brexit, the French president claimed yesterday a no-deal Brexit would be of Britain’s own making and not the EU’s.
Mr Macron said there was not a “cigarette paper” between France, Germany and other EU member states, adding that demands to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement were “not an option”.
In a warning to Britain, he added: “The point can’t be to exit Europe and say ‘we’ll be stronger’, before in the end, becoming the junior partner of the US, which are acting more and more hegemonically.”
He also suggested a UK-US trade deal would not mitigate the cost of a no-deal Brexit to Britain.
“Can be offset by the United States of America? No,” he said.
“And even if it were a strategic choice it would be at the cost of an historic vassalisation of Britain.
“I don’t think this is what Boris Johnson wants. I don’t think it is what the British people want.”
And Luxembourg’s foreign minister said it would it take a miracle to solve the Irish border issue and avoid a no-deal Brexit.
“Miracles should never be ruled out, but I’m sceptical we can simply pluck something out of the air that guarantees Ireland has no hard border and at the same time the EU has control over what enters its market,” Jean Asselborn told German broadcaster SWR.
A senior EU official has said the bloc is waiting for detailed proposals from Britain to break the impasse, adding that European Council President Donald Tusk would be in “listening mode” when he meets with Mr Johnson on the sidelines of this weekend’s G7 summit in France.
The backstop is designed to prevent a hard border, should such a scenario not be avoided through the future UK-EU relationship, but has been criticised for leaving either Northern Ireland or the whole UK too closely tied to EU rules with no influence.
Mr Johnson has consistently described the backstop as “anti-democratic” and demanded it be removed from the Withdrawal Agreement.
Mrs Merkel, appearing next to Mr Johnson, told reporters at a news conference after their talks that 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 EU’s single market.
“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,” she said.
“Then we are one step further in the right direction and we have to obviously put our all into this.”
The German chancellor stressed the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland “needs to be preserved in letter and spirit” during the UK’s exit from the EU.
“We have to somehow try and align those positions which, at first glance is not so easy, but we need to do this,” she added.
Mrs Merkel also declared that the EU would be “prepared” for a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Johnson, who has stepped up the UK’s own preparations for no deal, echoed the German chancellor’s assertion that the “onus” is on Britain to provide substitutes to the backstop arrangement.
He said: “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.”
The prime minister outlined “alternative arrangements” such as trusted trader schemes or electronic pre-clearing for goods crossing the Irish border.
“The UK will under no circumstances implement checks – customs checks or any type of checks – at the border in Northern Ireland,” Mr Johnson said.
“We think there are ways of protecting the integrity of the EU single market without having checks of that kind at the border.”
Mr Johnson, who also ruled out agreeing to a time limit to the backstop arrangement, added: “I have, in my life, watched a lot of European negotiations and, believe me, it looks at first as though it is, you know, irresistible force and immovable object.
“What in my experience happens is that people find a way through and I think that if we approach this with sufficient patience and optimism, as I say, we can get this done and it is in the final furlong generally when the horses change places and the winning deal appears.”
With 70 days before the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU, Brussels officials are reluctant to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s divorce – a stance that was reiterated by French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday.
The prime minister’s arrival at the German chancellery in Berlin was marked by shouts of “stop Brexit” by protesters.