LUXEMBOURG – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson failed on Monday to convince EU leaders he has a serious plan for a Brexit deal, then ducked out of a planned news conference under a chorus of abuse from protesters.
Before setting off for talks in Luxembourg, Johnson had compared himself to the comic book giant Hulk. But when anti-Brexit protesters gathered, he left Prime Minister Xavier Bettel to field questions alone.
A visibly angry Bettel pointed in bitter amusement at the empty podium in front of the British flag beside him, as he warned that the U.K. had failed to come up with any credible way to revive the Brexit withdrawal deal. It was time to “stop speaking and act,” he told the absent Johnson.
“For me I have just one withdrawal agreement on the table and it’s the one from last year,” Bettel said. “There are no changes, there are no concrete proposals for the moment on the table and I won’t give an agreement to ideas.”
After brief talks with Johnson, Bettel was due to head to Paris to meet with France’s President Emmanuel Macron. Luxembourg’s prime minister warned that EU leaders will not postpone Brexit beyond October 31 if the U.K. does not come up with written suggestions soon.
“An extension is only an option it if serves a purpose,” he warned.
Once safely clear of the small crowd of British residents of Luxembourg who had gathered outside Bettel’s office for a noisy protest, Johnson made brief remarks to British broadcasters.
“There was clearly going to be a lot of noise … and I think our points might have been drowned out,” he protested. Johnson insisted he would never seek to postpone Brexit anyway, and that he’d made progress in agreeing to further talks with EU leader Jean-Claude Juncker and negotiator Michel Barnier.
But Juncker, who had held a working lunch with Johnson, was downbeat.
The president of the European Commission said that once again the U.K. had failed to come up with a viable alternative to the so-called Irish “backstop” border arrangement.
“President Juncker recalled that it is the U.K.’s responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions that are compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement,” a statement said.
Johnson has vowed to take the U.K. out of the bloc by the scheduled date of October 31, though parliament has ordered him not to do so without striking a deal with Brussels first.
Businesses and opponents of Brexit say leaving without a deal will cause economic chaos as the U.K. ends its open trade ties to the European Union after 46 years.
Johnson says the country will not agree to a divorce deal that includes the backstop — a provision that would temporarily keep the U.K. in the EU customs union to keep the Irish border open.
He maintains that he will not delay Brexit beyond October 31 even if it means leaving with no deal.
Before the talks, a U.K. spokesman stressed London’s view that progress was being made in talks between officials to try to find a backstop alternative. But that note of optimism found no echo in European capitals.
Finland’s European affairs minister, Tytti Tuppurainen, who was chairing an EU ministerial meeting in Brussels, said, “The European Union is always ready to negotiate when a proper proposal from the U.K. side is presented.
“So far I haven’t seen any proposal that would compensate the backstop.”
The European Parliament will vote this week on a resolution rejecting Johnson’s demand that the backstop clause be stripped from the deal.
Johnson insists it has to be removed if he is to bring the agreement back to the House of Commons for approval.
But the accord would also have to win the support of the other 27 EU leaders and the European Parliament to stop the U.K. crashing out with no deal on October 31.
Johnson has said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask his European counterparts to postpone Brexit for a third time.
Barnier will address the European Parliament session in Strasbourg on Wednesday as MEPs vote. They are expected to reaffirm and reinforce the EU Brexit stance — and insist that the backstop must stay.