BORIS JOHNSON must accept a customs union if the new British prime minister is to alleviate the need for the controversial Northern Irish backstop, EU negotiators today warned.
EU officials have encouraged Mr Johnson to commit to a soft Brexit in order to avoid a border from emerging on the island of Ireland. But Brussels will not curtail to threats by the next prime minister as they prepare to meet him from the first time. During his Tory leadership campaign, Mr Johnson spelled out plans to scrap the backstop as part of a wholesale renegotiation of Theresa May’s divorce deal.
Brussels also rebuked a key pledge to deliver a “standstill transition” as part of a no deal Brexit.
Mr Johnson’s team have urged him to ask the EU for a temporary tariff-free deal while a full trade deal is negotiated.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, today met with Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, to discuss the bloc’s next steps.
The Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group suggested Mr Johnson negotiate a more detailed political declaration on the future relationship in order to provide answers on how to avoid the backstop.
But they maintained the 585-page withdrawal agreement must be protected from any negotiation by Mr Barnier.
Mr Verfhostadt said: “The negotiated Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop which safeguards the Good Friday Agreement, is not up for renegotiation.
“Changes are still possible to make the declaration on the future relationship more ambitious, to ensure the deployment of the Irish backstop is not necessary.”
EU sources say that including a customs union and single market regulation alignment in the political declaration, the non-binding document that spells out the future UK-EU trading partnership, will alleviate the need for the backstop.
But Brussels will continue to refuse to scrap the backstop until the conditions become a reality in a full trade deal.
Mr Barnier today insisted he is ready to start work on the negotiations with Mr Johnson as early as next month.
The EU negotiator argued it would be the choice of the new prime minister if Britain leaves the bloc with or without a deal.
Mr Barnier said: “It’s a very important moment for the Brexit and we look forward to hearing what the new PM Boris Johnson wants, what are the choices of the UK.
“Is it an orderly Brexit the choice the preference of the EU, and we work for an orderly Brexit all along the last two years. If it is a no deal Brexit, the no deal Brexit will never be never the choice of the EU but we are prepared and for an orderly Brexit.
“We will work all along the next few weeks or months with the new UK Government in the best possible way in the very constructive spirit to facilitate the ratification of the withdrawal agreement.”
Mr Barnier insisted he is awaiting his first contact with Mr Johnson’s team of negotiators, adding: “We are ready to listen and to work with him in a constructive way.”
Brussels remains bleak that a deal can be reached by October 31, Britain’s next scheduled exit date.
The Steering Group said the Conservative leadership race had only increased the chances of a no-deal Brexit.
A group statement said: “Recent statements, not least those made during the Conservative party leadership campaign, have greatly increased the risk of a disorderly exit of the UK.
“It points out that a no-deal exit would be economically very damaging, even if such damage would not be inflicted equally on both parties.”
EU leaders will resist offering Mr Johnson any special no deal plans if he decides to rip up Mrs May’s divorce deal.
A diplomat familiar with the bloc’s Brexit preparations said: “If Boris rips up the withdrawal agreement, he rips up the deal and leaves the EU without one.
“There will be no managed no deal, no standstill transition – just a no deal.”