BRUSSELS (AP) — As Brexit recriminations reached fever pitch in London Thursday, Britain’s European Union partners were keeping their distance.
For weeks, they’ve been waiting for Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, to make a concrete suggestion on how to end the impasse over their divorce agreement. Without any fundamental change of approach, they are showing little willingness to grant another extension to Britain’s departure from the bloc.
All they can do in the febrile atmosphere in London where Johnson has lost a series of votes in Parliament is to continue to wait. It’s clear that Britain’s departure from the EU is reaching a new moment of truth that could see Johnson’s government fall, a general election next month and potentially a referendum further out on the country’s exit.
Johnson has said he would “step up the tempo” in Brexit negotiations but there are few signs of any progress.
While the sides are holding technical level talks aimed at finding a way forward, no new proposals have been made on the main sticking point — how to maintain a seamless and open border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.
To most EU ears, Johnson’s hoped-for deal appears to be purely intended for domestic consumption.
“For the talks to make progress, we would need to receive concrete proposals that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement,” European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told reporters Thursday, a day after the first round of technical talks.
The commission is running Brexit negotiations on behalf of Britain’s 27 European partners. Andreeva said Johnson’s negotiator David Frost and EU counterparts have “agreed to meet again on Friday.” Two further rounds are scheduled for next week, should there be anything to discuss, notably on the Irish border question.
Britain wants the backstop removed from the divorce agreement. The EU insists it must stay until a better way is found to ensure that no hard border is erected between two communities once plagued by conflict.
“For all the PM’s bluster about getting a deal, there are no real negotiations going on in Brussels, despite the EU’s door remaining wide open,” said Philippe Lamberts, a member of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group and Greens party leader.
“It’s quite clear that Johnson’s disingenuous strategy is designed to push the U.K. off a no-deal cliff-edge and to cement his own position regardless of the costs to the British people,” Lamberts said after talks at the assembly with the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Wednesday.
Beyond differences of opinion over the pace of Johnson’s “blistering” negotiations agenda, the EU is reluctant to consider any Brexit extension beyond Oct. 31. The original deadline was March 29 and that’s been extended twice to the current Brexit date.
British lawmakers are well on course to enacting a law that would compel the government to seek a delay rather than crash out without an agreement on Halloween; a move with heavy economic and political costs. That delay could last three more months.
French President Emmanuel Macron argued in April when the latest extension was approved that a long delay could weaken the EU’s institutions and undermine the way the bloc operates. He has opposed repeated extensions, saying the EU must not be “trapped in the Brexit’s uncertainty.”
Meeting Johnson in Paris last month, he reaffirmed his priority was “to protect the European project.” He also told reporters that he sees no reason to grant a further delay unless there’s a major political change, such as a general election in Britain or a new referendum, to justify it.
Finland’s Prime Minister Antti Rinne, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, has said an extension lacks widespread support, and to be acceptable would probably require “some sort of future scenario … to underline that something sensible could start happening.”
He told reporters Wednesday that there is “no sense” granting Britain an extension “that seems to lead nowhere, and I don’t think it’s possible to find majority support for such an extension.” The EU, Rinne said, needs “a perspective that would change the situation for a sensible, better direction.”
Jari Tanner in Helsinki and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.