Belfast Telegraph

Johnson to hold crunch meeting with Varadkar in bid to save Brexit talks

The PM caused fury in Brussels after No 10 claimed the EU was making it ‘essentially impossible’ for the UK to leave with a deal.

Boris Johnson is to meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for Brexit talks (Niall Carson/PA)
Boris Johnson is to meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for Brexit talks (Niall Carson/PA)

By Gavin Cordon, PA Whitehall Editor

Boris Johnson is to hold crunch talks with Irish premier Leo Varadkar, as negotiations to avert a no-deal Brexit were hanging in the balance.

The two leaders spoke by telephone for about 40 minutes amid accusations from No 10 that the EU was making it “essentially impossible” for Britain to leave with an agreement.

“Both sides strongly reiterated their desire to reach a Brexit deal,” a Downing Street spokesman said. “They hope to meet in person later this week.”

Earlier there was fury in Brussels following a series of No 10 briefings claiming German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made clear a deal was now “overwhelmingly unlikely”.

No 10 sources claimed Mrs Merkel had told the Prime Minister that Britain could not leave the EU unless it was prepared to leave Northern Ireland behind in a permanent customs union.

European Council president Donald Tusk accused Mr Johnson of engaging in a “stupid blame game” ahead of next week’s crucial EU summit.

“At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people,” he tweeted.

“You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis (where are you going)?”

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Angela Merkel is said to have told Boris Johnson that a deal is ‘overwhelmingly unlikely’ (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Labour said the Prime Minister was guilty of a “cynical” attempt to “sabotage” the talks, saying his strategy had always been to pursue a no-deal break.

The hardball tactics from No 10 even alarmed some ministers, after sources warned Britain could break off security co-operation with the EU if it was prevented from leaving on October 31 as Mr Johnson has promised.

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith tweeted that “any threat on withdrawing security co-operation with Ireland is unacceptable”.

The dramatic escalation in the war of words between Brussels and London, followed a telephone call on Tuesday between Mr Johnson and Mrs Merkel to discuss the latest UK proposal to resolve the deadlock over the Northern Ireland backstop.

EU leaders have dismissed the plan as the basis for a settlement as it would mean the return of customs checks on the island of Ireland, albeit taking place well away from the border between the North and the Republic.

A No 10 source said Mrs Merkel had told the Prime Minister Ireland must at least have a veto on Northern Ireland leaving the EU with the rest of the UK.

“It was a very useful clarifying moment in all sorts of ways,” the unnamed source, quoted by Sky News, said.

“If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible, not just now but ever.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman acknowledged there had been a “frank exchange” with Mrs Merkel and that the talks had reached a “critical point”, but refused to be drawn any further on the “source” claims.

We won’t engage in further talks. Everything to do with ‘duty of sincere cooperation’ will be in the toilet No 10 source

The German government refused to comment on what it said were “confidential conversations”.

However there was said to be surprise among diplomats in Brussels at Mrs Merkel’s reported comments, as she has consistently stressed her commitment to achieving a deal.

The row comes with time running out if EU leaders are to sign off on a deal at their next two-day summit on October 17 and 18.

It followed a briefing to The Spectator magazine, also citing a contact in No 10, warning the Government could do “all sorts of things” to get around the so-called Benn Act, which requires the Prime Minister to seek a further Brexit delay if he cannot get a deal by October 19.

The source – widely thought to Mr Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings – said it would treat any support by EU leaders for a new extension as “hostile interference” in UK politics, and that future defence and security co-operation would “inevitably” be affected.

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Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney has said the EU is working flat out to get a deal (Niall Carson/PA)

“We won’t engage in further talks, we obviously won’t given any undertakings about co-operative behaviour, everything to do with ‘duty of sincere cooperation’ will be in the toilet,” the source said.

For Labour, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: “This is yet another cynical attempt by Number 10 to sabotage the negotiations.

“Boris Johnson will never take responsibility for his own failure to put forward a credible deal. His strategy from day one has been no-deal Brexit.”

Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney said there was “a lot of misinformation going around” and that the Irish government and the EU were working “flat out” to get a deal.

“However, that deal cannot come at any cost. The British Government has responsibilities on the island of Ireland,” he said.

“A no-deal Brexit will not be Ireland’s choice, it will never be the EU’s choice. If it happens, it will be a decision made by the British Government.”

However DUP leader Arlene Foster said Mrs Merkel’s reported comments showed the true objective of the EU and Dublin was to permanently “trap” Northern Ireland in a customs union.

“For the United Kingdom to be asked to leave a part of its sovereign territory in a foreign organisation of which the UK would no longer be a part and over which we would have no say whatsoever is beyond crazy,” she said.

“No UK Government could ever concede such a surrender.”

PA

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