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EU: Operational proposals to replace Brexit backstop ‘have not yet been made’

Boris Johnson and Jean-Claude Juncker met face-to-face for the first time in Luxembourg.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, inside Le Bouquet Garni restaurant in Luxembourg, prior to a working lunch on Brexit (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, inside Le Bouquet Garni restaurant in Luxembourg, prior to a working lunch on Brexit (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

By Sam Blewett, Political Correspondent in Luxembourg and David Hughes, Political Editor, PA

Brussels has stepped up its demands for Boris Johnson to set out his plan for a Brexit deal after talks between the Prime Minister and European Union chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

Mr Johnson and the European Commission president sat down for their first face-to-face talks in a restaurant in Mr Juncker’s native Luxembourg.

But while Mr Juncker said the talks were “friendly” and negotiations will proceed “at high speed”, there was little public sign of a breakthrough.

The commission said the Government had still not made “legally operational solutions” to replace the controversial Irish backstop element of the Brexit divorce deal, which keeps the UK closely tied to EU rules in order to avoid a hard border.

A European Commission statement released following the working lunch at Luxembourg City’s Le Bouquet Garni restaurant said: “President Juncker recalled that it is the UK’s responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions that are compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement.

“President Juncker underlined the Commission’s continued willingness and openness to examine whether such proposals meet the objectives of the backstop. Such proposals have not yet been made.”

Both Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier were at the lunchtime meeting with the Prime Minister and commission president.

Downing Street said the meeting was “constructive” and contact between the two sides would be stepped up.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister reconfirmed his commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and his determination to reach a deal with the backstop removed, that UK parliamentarians could support.

“The Prime Minister also reiterated that he would not request an extension and would take the UK out of the EU on October 31.

“The leaders agreed that the discussions needed to intensify and that meetings would soon take place on a daily basis.

“It was agreed that talks should also take place at a political level between Michel Barnier and the Brexit Secretary, and conversations would also continue between president Juncker and the Prime Minister.”

The UK side believes it has put forward suggestions on issues including an all-Ireland approach to checks on plant and animal products.

But Mr Johnson’s Government is reluctant to produce fixed, written proposals, with Whitehall sources saying they fear the EU side will just “trash it” in public unless the timing is right and Brussels has shown it is open to the possibility of making changes.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Johnson said he was working “flat out” to reach an agreement with the EU, but reiterated that he would take the UK out of the bloc even if a deal cannot be reached at the European Council summit next month – despite the legislation passed by Parliament requiring him to seek an extension in order to avoid crashing out without a deal on Halloween.

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Protesters outside Le Bouquet Garni restaurant in Luxembourg, prior to a working lunch between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Brexit (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Writing in the Daily Telegraph he said: “We have all spent too long on this question. And if we can get that deal, then of course there will be time for Parliament to scrutinise and approve it before the end of October.

“But be in no doubt that if we cannot get a deal – the right deal for both sides – then the UK will come out anyway.”

The law passed by Parliament after MPs seized control of Commons business requires the Prime Minister to seek an extension to the Brexit process if a deal has not been reached by October 19.

But Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab suggested the Government was still examining the implications of the “deeply, deeply flawed” legislation – fuelling speculation Mr Johnson may try to find a loophole to avoid seeking a delay.

Downing Street said the Prime Minister could both ensure the UK left the European Union come what may on October 31 and comply with the law.

Asked how those two things could be compatible, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I’ve avoided getting into any of that beyond saying that governments comply by the law but we will be leaving on October 31.”

Over the weekend, Mr Johnson likened Britain leaving the EU to the Incredible Hulk breaking free from manacles.

But former justice secretary David Gauke told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “Maybe the Incredible Hulk doesn’t have to comply with the law, but the British Government does.”

Ahead of the meeting with Mr Johnson, Mr Juncker used an interview on German radio to warn “time is running out” for an alternative Brexit agreement, as he suggested no-deal was unpatriotic.

“If you love your country – and I assume there are still patriots in the UK – you do not want to wish your country such a fate,” he said.

The Prime Minister faced a barrage of chanting from pro-EU protesters as he left the two-hour lunch with Mr Juncker.

“Go home Boris” and “stop Brexit” were among the loudest cries directed at the Prime Minister after leaving the restaurant with the European Commission president.

PA

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