The hazy smoke signals from 10 Downing Street increased the possibility that Britain will exit the European Union at the end of October without a deal of any kind. That was once seen as a doomsday scenario, but it has now been embraced by Johnson, who has promised that Britain will leave the trading bloc “do or die” in three weeks.
An anonymous source in Johnson’s office briefed British broadcasters about a morning call between Johnson and Merkel, asserting that the Europeans would not budge an inch.
“It was a very useful and clarifying moment in all sorts of ways,” the British official was quoted as saying. “If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible, not just now but ever.”
The statement from London caused bafflement and pushback in Europe.
“You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis?” Tusk challenged Johnson, mimicking the prime minister’s frequent use of Latin in his remarks. “Quo vadis?” means “Where are you going?”
Later in the day, Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters that “discussions are ongoing in Brussels” but also stressed that they were at a “critical point” and that a compromise must now come from Europe.
After Johnson submitted Brexit proposals last week that crossed E.U. red lines, European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said it was on the British side that additional work needed to happen.
Johnson faces a series of deadlines. The European Council meets next week — one of the last possible times to approve a tweaked deal. The British Parliament also passed a law ordering Johnson to ask the E.U. for a Brexit delay if he has not sealed a deal with the bloc by Oct. 19.
“Merkel said that if Germany wanted to leave the E.U., they could do it, no problem. But the U.K. cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland behind in a customs union and in full alignment forever,” the British source was quoted as saying.
Merkel’s office remained tight-lipped, and her spokesman did not immediately return calls on Tuesday. But the skepticism from Europe was quick.
The British description of the call did not sound like language the German chancellor would use, diplomats pointed out.
Over the past three years, Merkel has consistently allowed for more talks, more time for Britain to figure out what it wants from Brexit and to offer solutions.
How to tackle the issue of Northern Ireland, and avoid the reintroduction of customs checks with the Republic of Ireland, which will remain part of the E.U., has been one of the thorniest complications in reaching a deal on Brexit.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought an end to a hard border there, after decades of sectarian conflict, and there are fears that bringing back a border would not only disrupt lives and business but also be a magnet for new violence.
The E.U. has been critical of Johnson’s proposal to reintroduce customs checks.
The Merkel call made clear that Europe is “willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement,” the anonymous source in Johnson’s office said.
Use of words such as “torpedo” suggested to analysts that the briefing was deeply partisan.
“The U.K. government’s attempt to shift the blame for the Brexit fiasco to anyone but themselves — today it’s Merkel — is pathetically transparent,” said Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who opposes both Johnson and Brexit.
Booth reported from London. Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.
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