Michel Barnier has called on Boris Johnson to rein in the Downing Street aides responsible for attacking the German chancellor this week as the EU doubled down on its rejection of the prime minister’s proposals.
As talks between British and EU officials in Brussels came to a sudden halt, the EU’s chief negotiator told the European parliament: “We’re not really in a position where we’re able to find an agreement.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said he would not be as “diplomatic” as the bloc’s negotiator. “I think that the proposal that Boris Johnson one week ago put forward was not serious at all,” he said. “I call it a virtual proposal, not a real proposal.”
Barnier had used his appearance in the parliament’s regular discussion on the objectives of next week’s EU leaders’ summit to calmly unpick each of the UK’s ideas for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
After rejecting the imposition of a customs border on the island of Ireland, and the plans for Stormont to have a veto on Northern Ireland’s alignment with the EU’s single market in goods, Barnier said: “The proposal of the British government as things stand isn’t something we can accept. It replaces an operational, practical, legal solution [with] one that is simply a temporary solution.”
But he also issued a thinly veiled reprimand to the prime minister over Downing Street’s aggressive tactics, including the anonymous briefing to journalists attributed to Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, about Angela Merkel’s recent phone call with the prime minister.
“In this moment, where we are now, we will remain calm, we will remain constructive and we will be respectful of the UK and those who lead it,” Barnier said. “That is our approach and we hope that with this attitude on both sides we will be able to come to an agreement that works for everyone.”
The European commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, told MEPs: “We are not accepting this blame game which started in London. We are not to be blamed but we will see in the next coming days how things will develop.”
Verhofstadt most clearly expressed the anger felt by many at the briefings from Downing Street, in which it was claimed that the EU was “willing to torpedo the Good Friday agreement”. Merkel was said in the anonymous briefing to have also refused to allow Northern Ireland to leave the bloc’s customs union.
Verhofstadt said: “It is a blame game. A blame game against everybody. A blame game against the [European] union, against Ireland, against Mrs Merkel, against the British judicial system, against Labour, against Lib Dems, even Mrs May.
“The only one who is not to be blamed is Mr Johnson apparently. All those who are not playing his game are traitors, are collaborators, are surrenderers.
“The real traitor is he or she who risks bringing bringing disaster on his country, its economy and its citizens by pushing Britain out of the European Union. That in my opinion is a traitor.”
The Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, will meet Barnier for a working lunch in Brussels on Thursday. But the focus is now on Johnson’s planned meeting with the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar,on the same day.
Varadkar said on Wednesday he was willing to examine how the people of Northern Ireland could give their consent to arrangements to avoid a hard border.
But he went on: “Part of the difficulty at the moment though is it is the position of the UK government that Northern Ireland must leave the EU customs union and be part of the UK customs union, no matter what the people of Northern Ireland think. That’s their position at the moment, and that’s the one that’s of grave difficulty to us.”
EU diplomats for the 27 other member states were briefed by the European commission on Wednesday morning that there had not been any change in the UK position in recent days to give hope that a deal could be signed off by leaders when they meet next Thursday.
According to EU sources, the French representative in the meeting warned, in response, that “there can be no assumptions” about a free-trade deal with the UK after Brexit, given the British wish to remove all level playing field conditions, such as non-regression on environmental standards, from the withdrawal agreement.
In a forceful intervention, the point was made that free-trade agreements were always decided on a case-by-case basis with the final result not automatically certain.
Johnson’s government has promised a “best-in-class” deal with the EU and wants to end the UK’s close alignment with the bloc on standards regarding health, environment and workers’ rights.