Boris Johnson was left humiliated and his claims of progress in the Brexit negotiations in tatters after a chaotic visit to Luxembourg ended in the prime minister being mocked by a fellow European leader for cancelling a press appearance to avoid protesters.
Johnson was booed and jeered as he left a working lunch with the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, before opting out of plans to speak alongside Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, after being targeted by a larger crowd.
The cancellation left Johnson scuttling past the waiting lecterns in a courtyard outside the prime minister’s office to chants of “bollocks to Brexit” and “bog off Boris” by protesters a few metres away.
As the chaotic scenes were played out, the European commission issued a statement disclosing that Juncker had told the prime minister that it was his responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions and that “such proposals have not yet been made”, in contradiction of the government’s recent claims.
The prime minister’s dash to Luxembourg was supposed to have been a key moment for him to illustrate that Brexit talks were moving towards a deal, with Downing Street briefing after the meeting with Juncker that negotiations in Brussels would move from being bi-weekly to daily.
But the anger from Britons living in Luxembourg, and the exasperation of the EU leaders spilled over as Johnson moved between meetings.
Bettel, who gave a wave to the crowds and offered a defence of their right to demonstrate after Johnson’s decision to leave, did not mince his words as he took the lectern next to the one left empty by the British prime minister’s no-show, with the union flag still in position.
He mocked the varying suggestions in recent weeks from Johnson that there had been good progress in the Brexit talks and that it would take the strength of the comic hero, the Incredible Hulk, to leave the EU with a deal.
Bettel said: “I asked also Mr Johnson: I read in the papers a few days ago that it goes from ‘big progress’, to Hulk, to David Cameron proposing a second Brexit [referendum]. And Mr Johnson said there won’t be a second referendum, because I asked him: wouldn’t that be a solution to get out of the situation?”
Guy Verhofstadt, the chief Brexit representative for the European parliament, also used the opportunity to ridicule Johnson, tweeting a picture of Bettel next to the empty chair beneath the text: From Incredible Hulk to Incredible Sulk.
From Incredible Hulk to Incredible Sulk pic.twitter.com/15x1Kd9FX7— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) September 16, 2019
Bettel said the UK government needed to lay out on paper an alternative to the Irish backstop, and appeared to suggest that party political considerations might be standing in the way.
EU officials have long believed that Johnson is unlikely to table any ideas until after the Conservative party conference in two weeks but they fear that this will not allow enough time for a deal to be agreed given the gap between the two sides.
A government source confirmed that the UK would not be putting forward any formal text for at least another week. No 10 maintains that progress is being made and that a deal is still possible in the time remaining. Johnson told the BBC he was “cautiously optimistic” because EU leaders had had “a bellyful of all this stuff”.
Xavier Bettel has been prime minister of Luxembourg since 2013. He was previously the mayor of Luxembourg City. Born in Luxembourg City in 1973, he studied law at university in both France and Greece, and combined working as a barrister with his political career.
Bettel was first elected to municipal office in 1999, representing Luxembourg’s centre-right Democratic party.
In 2018 he became the first openly gay prime minister in the world to be re-elected for a second term. He married his husband, Gauthier Destenay, in May 2015, five months after his government had legalised equal marriage.
But Bettel said: “People need to know what is going to happen to them in six weeks time. They need certainty and they need stability. You cannot hold their future hostage for party political gain.” Gesticulating to the empty lectern, he added: “So now it is on Mr Johnson.”
Bettel raised his voice in frustration when asked by reporters whether Downing Street may be pursuing a sham negotiation in order to pin the blame on the EU for a no-deal Brexit: “I told him, ‘I hear a lot but I don’t read a lot’. If they want to discuss anything we need to have it written [down] … Don’t put the blame on us because they don’t know how to get out of the situation they put themselves in.”
Asked about the suggestion that Johnson would break the law to avoid extending article 50, Bettel said: “This wouldn’t happen in Luxembourg.”
It is understood Downing Street had asked that the scheduled press conference with Bettel be moved inside away from a crowd of around 75 noisy protesters but that the Luxembourg government rejected the request.
From the safety of the British embassy, Johnson later told broadcasters the Brexit talks were in a “difficult moment” and that the press conference had to be cancelled as “there was clearly going to be a lot of noise and our points would have been drowned out”.
Johnson insisted that there was movement in the talks in which the UK is trying to find an alternative plan to the Irish backstop for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.
He said: “Over the last couple of weeks, there’s been a lot of work … papers have been shared. But we are now at the stage where we need to start accelerating the work and that was the agreement today with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier.
“We need to manage this carefully. Yes there is a good chance of a deal, yes I can see the shape of it. Everybody can see roughly what could be done.”
Johnson conceded that a deal was not “necessarily in the bag” but that all sides were working to find a compromise. Confronted with the commission’s statement on a lack of progress, Johnson said: “Well, it’s certainly the case that the commission is still officially sticking on their position that the backstop has got to be there.”
The protests outside the Bettel’s offices were organised by David Pike, a classical baritone singer with joint Canadian, British and Luxemburger nationality. He led the noisy singing and chanting to the EU’s anthem.
“We are British and quite often dual nationals. I’m not a protester. I have been on a protest,” he said. “These people don’t go on protest, they are professionals, boring people. People who are concerned about this catastrophe.”
An official in the Luxembourg government official said that they had to decline Downing Street’s request for the press conference to be inside as there was not a room large enough for the media: “We tried to change it but on such short notice we had to work with what we had – it really wasn’t our intention to embarrass Mr Johnson.”