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After Johnson defeat, UK Brexit team faces sceptical EU

AFP , Wednesday 4 Sep 2019
After Johnson defeat, UK Brexit team faces sceptical EU
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the House of Commons | Roger Harris/EFE via EPA
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Johnson lost his first parliamentary battle as British prime minister on Tuesday when rebel and opposition MPs opposed to a "no-deal" departure from the European Union stripped him of his governing majority.
 
But London's Brexit "sherpa", senior diplomat David Frost, was due in Brussels for closed door talks with an EU task force to explore possible alternatives to the "Irish backstop" clause in a withdrawal treaty.
 
Johnson insists the backstop, which keeps Britain in the EU customs union until another way is found to keep the Northern Irish border open, must go if the UK is to sign up to any new deal for an orderly divorce.
 
But EU leaders see the backstop as the only way to protect their single market and the Northern Ireland peace agreement -- and they accuse Johnson of failing to come up with any credible alternative suggestion.
 
 'Fundamental problem' 
 
At home, Johnson's opponents accused him of carrying out a sham negotiation while hurtling towards an economically disastrous no-deal Brexit on October 31, and British MPs are trying to pass a law to force him to ask for a delay.
 
But British officials point to Frost's visit on Wednesday as evidence they are engaging in good faith with Brussels and in turn seeking ideas from the European side to break the impasse.
 
A British official source told AFP the talks would go on all month and "intensify", arguing the prime minister "wants to get a deal and is ready to work in an energetic and determined way to get it done".
 
The team intends for the talks to "run through a range of issues, including the removal of the backstop," he said.
 
"Discussions so far have shown that the two sides remain some distance apart on key issues but are willing to work hard to find a way through," he said.
 
European officials are sceptical, both that Johnson is sincere and that he even has a domestic mandate to negotiate while preparing for a likely snap election in the wake of his calamitous parliamentary defeat.
 
On Tuesday, the European Commission spokeswoman said the British side had presented no "concrete proposals" to replace the backstop and that Brexit is still expected on October 31, with or without a deal.
 
A European diplomat said EU leaders would probably agree to another extension beyond this date if the British ask and "if it prevents a chaotic Brexit."
 
But he stressed that the negotiations are in trouble.
 
"The fundamental problem is that the British government and parliament disagree on what they want," the European official told AFP.
 
"It is possible elections could bring a clarification. Having a government in power which obviously does not have a majority in parliament is naturally a problem."
 
Europe's lead Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has worked hard to keep the other 27 EU capitals united during nearly three years of wrangling with London.
 
The EU side insists the parameters of the withdrawal agreement that was signed by Johnson's predecessor Theresa May in November last year remain sacrosanct.
 
'A business opportunity' 
 
Any of the "alternative arrangements" promoted by Johnson for the Irish border must thus protect the integrity of the single market, prevent a hard border and respect the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
 
Frost's delegation represents what the British official called "an expert team from across government that has expertise in regulations and customs".
 
But London won't make any proposal public only to see it shot down by sceptical Europeans, and EU experts say that without a physical border something all sides insist they want to avoid -- the backstop is the only plausible failsafe.
 
"If I were a fraudster, it's a business opportunity, for sure," an EU anti-corruption official told journalists of the prospect of a free-for-all on the Northern Irish border after a "no deal" departure.
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