NEW YORK – Boris Johnson will start a week of intense diplomacy on Monday, as he tries to push for a Brexit deal on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The British prime minister will hold meetings this week with all the key players — Germany’s Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and European Council President Donald Tusk. He will try to persuade them to renegotiate the divorce deal they agreed to with his predecessor, Theresa May, that was rejected three times by Parliament.
“I would caution you all,” he told reporters on the plane to New York, trying to reduce expectations. “I don’t wish to escalate excessively the belief that there will be a New York breakthrough. We will be pushing ahead but there is still work to be done.”
He’ll also try to look beyond Brexit.
Johnson will seek to find a consensus on how to handle Iran, which Britain blames for the recent attack on an Aramco installation in Saudi Arabia. He’ll announce a £1 billion ($1.2 billion) fund to pay for the development and testing of new technology to tackle climate change in developing countries. And, he’ll meet U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday as he attempts to advance talks on a free-trade deal.
Johnson’s New York visit risks being overshadowed from home. On the plane, he refused six times to discuss a Sunday Times report that in his time as London mayor he had given privileged access to a model-turned-entrepreneur with whom he was friendly. And the U.K. Supreme Court is due to rule on whether he broke the law when he suspended Parliament for five weeks.
If he can navigate those problems, the tortured negotiations over the U.K.’s departure from the European Union will dominate Johnson’s agenda. He has pledged to leave “do or die” on Halloween and without a deal if necessary — though that would mean defying a law passed by Parliament this month requiring him to seek a delay to Jan. 31 instead.
The government has said the best way out of the impasse is to negotiate a deal with the EU that British politicians can support. But Johnson won’t be able to do so unless he can show the bloc viable alternatives to the contentious backstop, a measure to keep the Irish border free of checks that Johnson has vowed to remove from any divorce deal because it keeps the U.K. tied to EU rules.
“A large number of the important players really do now want a deal,” Johnson said. The prime minister said he was “cautiously optimistic” but that “there are clearly still gaps, still difficulties.”
In a recorded interview broadcast on Sunday, though, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made clear the EU is not yet convinced Johnson has a solution to the Irish border. He also made clear where he thought the blame would lie for a no-deal Brexit.
“The EU is in no way responsible for any kind of consequences entailed by Brexit,” he told Sky News. “That’s a British decision, a sovereign decision that we are respecting.”
The key problem remains — as it was for May — how to deliver on three apparently incompatible aims: Moving from EU rules and strike independent trade deals; not to have a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland; and not to have checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
Britain has suggested that agricultural produce and animals could be regulated on an all-Ireland basis, effectively putting a border in the Irish Sea for those products. Asked if that could be extended to manufactured goods, Johnson said it was “a very interesting question.”
“What you might want to do is ensure that the U.K., whole and entire, is able in the future to diverge from EU law if it had to,” the prime minister said. “That’s the crucial thing. We may want to regulate differently. Clearly there is also a strong incentive to keep goods moving fluidly. We think we can do both.”
Juncker said that a no-deal Brexit would mean a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to protect the integrity of the EU single market.
“We have to preserve the health and the safety of our citizens,” he said.
Meanwhile, it’s not just Johnson’s Tories that are struggling over Brexit. Splits are re-emerging in the main opposition Labour Party, overshadowing efforts to use the party’s annual conference to build a platform to challenge the Conservatives.
Leader Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong euroskeptic, said his party is pledging to hold a second referendum on Brexit if it’s elected to government, pitting “Remain” against a “credible” deal he negotiates with the EU — but has refused to say which side he’d campaign for.
That has angered senior politicians and party members, the majority of whom want to stay in the EU. They are demanding an unambiguous commitment to campaign to remain.
“If you believe in internationalism and if you believe in socialism, why on earth would you back Brexit?” Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Emily Thornberry, said in a speech on the margins of the conference in Brighton, England. “We must not just campaign to remain, we must lead the campaign to remain.”