Angela Merkel delivered a Brexit boost to Boris Johnson today as she said ditching the backstop was possible if the UK can come forward with a practical and workable alternative within the next 30 days as she also insisted Germany is ready for a No Deal split.
The German Chancellor said if the UK could solve the ‘conundrum’ of the Irish border protocol then she would be willing to listen to the proposals.
Mr Johnson welcomed the ‘blistering timetable of 30 days’ as he said he agreed the ‘onus is on us to produce those solutions’ as he suggested the previous government led by Theresa May had failed to adequately set out alternatives.
The comments came as the pair met for the first time in Berlin for a working dinner this evening when Mr Johnson is expected to make clear that he is serious about taking the UK out of the EU by the current October 31 deadline with or without a deal.
He is due to travel to Paris for a lunchtime meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron tomorrow as he attempts to persuade European leaders to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s divorce from the bloc – something they have so far refused to do.
Berlin, Paris and Brussels had all earlier today preemptively ruled out shifting on the key issue of the backstop which Mr Johnson has insisted must be deleted for a deal to be done.
Allies of Ms Merkel said overnight that scrapping it would be ‘completely impossible’ while a French presidential aide said today Mr Macron was now working off the belief that No Deal is the ‘most likely’ scenario.
Meanwhile, Dublin said it would not be ‘steam-rolled’ over the Irish border protocol.
Downing Street had cautioned against the idea that talks with Ms Merkel and Mr Macron would lead to a big breakthrough.
But Ms Merkel’s admission that she is willing to listen to backstop alternatives will have delighted Downing Street because her comments suggest there could yet be movement on the issue which could unlock the path to a deal.
However, despite a likely fresh sense of optimism in Number 10, a deal between Britain and the EU still appears a long way off.
Brussels will be deeply sceptical that the UK will be able to come up with alternatives to the backstop which are strong enough to ditch the insurance policy which was designed to ensure there is not a return to a hard border in the event no agreement is reached on future trading relations.
Separately, this afternoon Jeremy Corbyn invited opposition leaders and Tory Remainer rebels to meet on August 27 to discuss ‘all tactics available to prevent No Deal’.
Boris Johnson was greeted by Angela Merkel in Berlin this afternoon as he arrived in Germany for showdown Brexit talks
Mr Johnson was welcomed to the German capital with full military honours as he and Ms Merkel inspected a guard of honour outside the Chancellery building in Berlin
The two leaders addressed the media before a working dinner at which Mr Johnson was expected to stress he is serious about leaving the EU with or without a deal on October 31
Ms Merkel delivered a Brexit boost to the British Prime Minister when she invited the UK to come forward with alternatives to the backstop
After Mr Johnson’s arrival in Berlin, the two leaders delivered statements to the press and then took questions as Ms Merkel hinted at a potential way towards a Brexit resolution.
She said the backstop had always been a ‘fallback position’ and would only come into effect if no other solution could be agreed that would protect the ‘integrity of the single market’.
But she then added: ‘If one is able to solve this conundrum, if one finds this solution, we said we would probably find it in the next two years to come but we can also maybe find it in the next 30 days to come.
‘Then we are one step further in the right direction and we have to obviously put our all into this.’
Mr Johnson said the ‘onus is on us’ to produce solutions for the Northern Irish border issue and he welcomed the ‘blistering timetable of 30 days’ proposed by Ms Merkel in which to come up with the answers.
He added: ‘I think what we need to do is remove it whole and entire – the backstop – and then work, as Chancellor Merkel says, on the alternative arrangements.
‘There are abundant solutions which are proffered, which have already been discussed. I don’t think, to be fair, they have so far been very actively proposed over the last three years by the British Government.
‘You (Mrs Merkel) rightly say the onus is on us to produce those solutions, those ideas, to show how we can address the issue of the Northern Irish border and that is what we want to do.
‘I must say I am very glad listening to you tonight Angela to hear that at least the conversations that matter can now properly begin.
‘You have set a very blistering timetable of 30 days – if I understood you correctly, I am more than happy with that.’
Ms Merkel said she wanted to ‘continue to have very close relations between the UK and the EU’ once Britain has left the bloc and that her preference was for a deal to be done before October 31.
But speaking about the prospect of a No Deal split, she said: ‘We are prepared for it.’
Ms Merkel and Mr Johnson enjoyed a drink on the terrace of the Chancellery as the PM undertook his first foreign trip since becoming PM in July
The showdown between Mr Johnson and Ms Merkel is viewed as pivotal as the EU and UK try to avoid a No Deal split on Halloween
Mr Johnson said his preference was for the UK to leave the EU with a deal – something he appeared to have emphasised in his notes as he had written DEAL in capital letters
Mr Johnson had used his opening remarks to initially try to charm Ms Merkel as he said it was ‘obvious’ that his first foreign trip as PM should be to Germany.
But he then struck a tough tone as he said he wanted to be ‘absolutely clear’ about what needed to happen to allow the UK and EU to strike an agreement.
He said: ‘We in the UK want a deal. We seek a deal and I believe we can get one.
‘But clearly we cannot accept the current Withdrawal Agreement, arrangements that either divide the UK or lock us into the regulatory and trading arrangements of the EU without the UK having any say on those matters.
‘We do need that backstop removed. If we can do that I am absolutely certain we can move forward together.’
Despite Ms Merkel’s comments on the backstop she insisted that it would still be for the EU as a bloc to negotiate the way forward from a ‘uniform, consistent position’.
A French presidential aide had earlier rejected Mr Johnson’s demand that the backstop be axed and contradicted the PM’s claim that if Britain leaves the EU without a deal it would not have to pay a £39 billion divorce bill.
‘The scenario that is becoming the most likely is one of No Deal,’ the official said.
‘The idea of saying ‘there’s not a deal, so I won’t pay’ does not work. We cannot imagine that a country like the UK would back out of an international commitment.’
The official added: ‘There’s no magic wand that makes this bill disappear.’
Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign affairs minister, said that while no one wanted to see the relationship between Ireland and the UK deteriorate, Dublin would not be dictated to.
Simon Coveney, pictured in July on the Andrew Marr Show, said today that Ireland would not be ‘steam-rolled’ by the UK
He said: ‘We are not in the business of being steam-rolled at the end of this because a British prime minister has rolled out new red lines. That’s not a reasonable approach.
‘We are trying to manage relationships in a way that is consistent with the Good Friday Agreement.
‘Ireland is a confident young country that expect to negotiate on an equal basis.
‘If we didn’t have the backstop we wouldn’t have answers to how we solve the border challenge.
‘The Withdrawal Agreement has a facilitation in it for multiple review mechanisms.’
Earlier today Mr Johnson had recommitted to his ‘do or die’ Brexit pledge and promised to make Britain the best country in the world as he prepared for his showdown with Ms Merkel.
He tweeted a video this morning of his first speech on the steps of Downing Street cut with footage of the Red Arrows, the Union flag and the White Cliffs of Dover along with a hardline message that he will not agree to another Brexit delay.
Mr Johnson sought to send a message to the EU this morning as he recommitted to his pledge to take the UK out of the bloc with or without a deal by the Halloween deadline
Mr Johnson has demanded the backstop be deleted from the Brexit deal. He will deliver his demand in person to Angela Merkel today as he flies to Berlin for talks. The timing and content of the video he tweeted this morning, including footage of the Red Arrows, will be carefully noted on the continent.
He tweeted: ‘We’re going to leave the EU on October 31st and make this country the best in the world to live in.’
Mr Johnson set out his stall earlier this week with an uncompromising letter to the EU in which he said the border protocol must be scrapped for there to be any hope of a deal being done.
The letter, sent to European Council president Donald Tusk, sparked a furious reaction from Brussels yesterday as the bloc doubled down on its insistence that the existing divorce deal cannot be changed.
Boris delivers huge poll boost for Tories
Boris Johnson’s election as leader of the Conservatives has delivered a massive opinion poll boost to the Tories while support for Labour and the Brexit Party has gone backwards, new data suggests.
A survey conducted by KantarTNS between August 15 and 19 puts the Tories on 42 per cent – 17 points higher than the company’s last poll in May.
Meanwhile, Labour is on 28 per cent – six points lower than in May – while the Brexit Party is on just five per cent – five points lower than the last poll.
The Liberal Democrats remain stuck on 15 per cent with the election of Jo Swinson as leader last month seemingly having done nothing to boost the party’s fortunes.
The latest poll and 14 point lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party will be welcomed by Downing Street as evidence that Mr Johnson’s hardline Brexit stance has been paying off since he took office at the end of July.
The 42 per cent rating for the Tories sees the party return to the kind of support levels the party last saw at the 2017 general election.
Under Theresa May’s leadership the Conservatives secured 42.4 per cent of the vote at the snap poll.
But even that was not enough to save her Commons majority as Labour managed to secure an unexpected 40 per cent of the vote and the nation returned a hung parliament.
If the latest poll numbers were to be repeated at a snap general election in the coming weeks, Mr Johnson could secure a Tory majority of 192 seats, based on modelling by the Electoral Calculus website.
The kind of reception Mr Johnson is likely to receive in Berlin was illustrated by Florian Hahn, European policy spokesman for Ms Merkel’s party, who told The Times: ‘There cannot and will not be new negotiations.
‘It is completely impossible that the backstop will be removed from the agreement or softened.
‘The only possible offer would be to agree more precise language for the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK after Brexit. But I fear this won’t be enough for Boris Johnson.’
Norbert Röttgen, another ally of Ms Merkel who is in charge of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, echoed a similar sentiment in comments reported by The Guardian.
He said: ‘The letter to the president of the European Council is not a serious offer, and Boris Johnson knows it.’
He added: ‘If Johnson really wanted to achieve something on his visits to Paris and Berlin, he would have been well advised against writing this letter.’
Meanwhile, a senior German official, asked by Politico what Ms Merkel would offer Mr Johnson on Brexit, replied: ‘Nothing.’
Mr Johnson said yesterday he would enter talks with Ms Merkel and Mr Macron ‘with a lot of oomph’ but both sides are refusing to budge and are locked in a state of stalemate.
Allies of Mr Johnson believe his tough message that there will be a No Deal split unless the EU agrees to drop the backstop has hit home hard in Brussels.
But many in the EU remain sceptical about whether Mr Johnson would actually go ahead with a bad break given the risk of it causing severe economic damage.
With just 71 days until the Halloween deadline there is yet to be any movement at all from Brussels, setting up a potentially fraught eleventh hour dash to avoid a chaotic divorce in the run up to October 31.
Speaking to reporters yesterday Mr Johnson reiterated his opposition to the backstop which is designed to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event the EU and UK cannot agree a future trading relationship.
He said: ‘Don’t forget why we’re doing all of this. The existing agreement just doesn’t work for the UK. And Parliament has thrown it out three times.
‘We can’t have this backstop. So I’m going to go to see our friends and partners – I’m going off to Germany and then to France, and then to see the G7 at Biarritz, and I’m going to make the point that the backstop is going to come out.’
Mr Johnson’s trip to Berlin and then Paris has been designed to try to stop Brexit overshadowing the G7 summit which taking place this weekend.
In his letter to Mr Tusk, Mr Johnson said the backstop should be removed from the divorce deal ahead of the October 31 Brexit deadline.
But Mr Tusk defended the measure and warned that scrapping it risked a return to a hard border.
Downing Street said that unless the backstop is abolished ‘there is no prospect of a deal’ being done between the two sides.
Mr Tusk suggested Number 10 was being unrealistic and accused Mr Johnson of dishonesty.
He said: ‘The backstop is an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found.
‘Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support re-establishing a border. Even if they do not admit it.’
A letter sent by Mr Johnson to Donald Tusk outlining his hardline negotiating position went down badly with the EU. Mr Tusk looked very relaxed yesterday despite the Brexit countdown after posting a picture on Instagram of him sitting on a hammock while looking after a baby and a dog
Responding, Mr Johnson said: ‘We think there is a big opportunity now for everybody to come together, take out that backstop.’
He added: ‘We will be looking at all the ways in which we can maintain frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border – whether it’s trusted trader schemes, or electronic pre-clearing, or whatever it happens to be, all that kind of thing, checks away from the border, points of sale or whatever if you have to crack down on smuggling, all that kind of thing – but we will come up with those solutions, or agree those solutions I should say, in the context of the free-trade agreement.
‘That’s the way we are going to approach it. And you know what, at the moment it is absolutely true that our friends and partners are a bit negative.
‘I saw what Donald Tusk had to say and it wasn’t redolent of a sense of optimism. But I think actually we will get there.’
Mr Johnson is adamant that alternative arrangements can be found to allow the backstop to be deleted and give the deal a fighting chance of being agreed by MPs.
Mr Tusk responded on Twitter to Mr Johnson and suggested the British Prime Minister was being unrealistic in his asks
The backstop was included in Theresa May’s original Brexit deal as a last resort measure to be used in the event no overall trade deal has been struck by the two sides by the end of a transition period.
It would effectively see existing EU rules on customs kept in place to ensure frictionless trade on the island of Ireland could continue and prevent the return of a hard border.
But Brexiteers hate it because if implemented it would last indefinitely, restrict the UK’s ability to strike its own trade deal and getting out of it would require the agreement of both sides.
Mr Johnson has repeatedly labelled the protocol ‘anti-democratic’ since he won the keys to Downing Street last month.