German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shake hands on August 21, 2019 in Berlin (Photo: AFP)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday gave Britain 30 days to come up with an alternative solution to the contested Irish border backstop, opening up the possibility of what Prime Minister Boris Johnson quipped could be a "final furlong" deal.
More than three years after the United Kingdom voted to quit the European Union, it is still unclear on what terms - or indeed whether - the bloc's second largest economy will leave the club it joined in 1973.
Johnson, a Brexiteer who won the premiership a month ago, is betting that the threat of "no-deal" Brexit turmoil will convince Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron that the EU should do a last-minute deal to suit his demands.
Speaking beside Merkel at the German Chancellery, Johnson repeatedly said that the Irish border backstop - which is a protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement struck by his predecessor Theresa May - needed to be removed in full.
"It was said we will probably find a solution in two years. But we could also find one in the next 30 days, why not?" Merkel, Europe's most powerful leader, said.
Johnson confirmed that she had given him 30 days to come up with alternatives and said there was ample scope for a deal. A British government source noted the more positive tone of Merkel's comments.
Asked about the distance between the positions of London and the other 27 members of the EU, Johnson said: "About the seeming impossibility of the negotiations, in my life I've watched a lot of European negotiations and it looks at first as if it's irresistible force and immovable object."
"If we approach this with sufficient patience and optimism, we can get this done. It's in the final furlong generally when the horses change places and the winning deal appears."
But with just over 10 weeks left until the scheduled departure, the EU has repeatedly said it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement and that it will stand behind member state Ireland.
As Johnson arrived, protesters outside the Chancellery gates shouted "Stop Brexit". Johnson and Merkel smiled and they joked about the British premier's German language skills.
Merkel has previously promised to discuss "practical solutions" to the Irish border insurance policy or "backstop" that Johnson says is unacceptable - but she has said the Withdrawal Agreement would not be reopened.
Wrenching Britain out of the EU without a deal means there would be no arrangements to cover everything from post-Brexit pet passports to the trade arteries that pump capital, food and car parts between the two neighbours.
Many investors say a no-deal Brexit would send shock waves through the world economy, hurt the economies of Britain and the EU, roil financial markets and weaken London's position as the pre-eminent international financial centre.
In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been enthusiastic about Brexit but critical of May's negotiating strategy, offered Britain help while criticising the EU.
"They have not treated the UK very well," he said. "That's a very tough bargain they are driving, the European Union. We are going to see if we can work something out."
With such a gulf between the British government and the other 27 members of the EU - whose economy combined is worth $15.9 trillion - some diplomats said Johnson was using international diplomacy for domestic politics.
Some fear he is setting up a confrontation with the EU that will allow him to reap more domestic political capital from what he will cast as EU intransigence.
"There can be no deal along (the lines of) what he is seeking. It is impossible," said one EU diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The only thing Johnson is seeking is to build a strong position for himself for an early election."
With talk of an election swirling in Britain, an online survey suggested Johnson's tougher stance on Brexit was dramatically reviving his Conservative party's fortunes.