There will be a hard Irish border if Brexit negotiations end in failure, Jean-Claude Juncker has warned.
The European Commission president made clear that Brussels will insist on checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic after a No Deal.
But he claimed the EU would be ‘in no way responsible’ for the consequences, saying blame would lie squarely with the UK.
The intervention, in an interview with Sky News earlier this week, heaps on the pressure as the clock runs down on the latest Brexit deadline.
The two sides look deadlocked over Boris Johnson’s demand that the hated backstop mechanism – a contingency plan to prevent a hard border by keeping the UK aligned with many of Brussels’ rules – be scrapped.
The PM has vowed that the UK will leave on October 31 regardless of whether there is an agreement in place, and will not install any infrastructure at the border.
Meanwhile, Mr Juncker told the Spanish newspaper El Pais today that there is still time for a deal to be done and described recent talks with Mr Johnson as ‘constructive and partly positive’.
Speaking to Sky News Mr Juncker sounded an optimistic note, saying ‘we can have a deal’.
He said: ‘We have to make sure that there will be no hard and physical border between the two parts of the Irish island and things have to be done on a level playing field.
Mr Juncker told Sky: ‘I don’t have an erotic relationship to the backstop. If the results are there, I don’t care about it’
‘If these three objectives are met by the alternative arrangements, then we don’t need the backstop.
‘The backstop was never an instrument having been put in place for whatever will happen. No, it was put in place in order to preserve the rights of the internal market and of the island of Ireland.’
What happens next in the Brexit crisis?
Here is how the coming weeks could pan out:
Today until Sept 25: Labour conference in Brighton.
Tomorrow: Possible Supreme Court ruling on whether prorogation of Parliament was legal.
Tomorrow and Tuesday: PM at UN summit in New York.
September 29-October 2: Tory conference takes place in Manchester, with Mr Johnson giving his first keynote speech as leader on the final day. This will be a crucial waypointer on how Brexit talks are going.
October 14: Unless it has already been recalled following the court battle, Parliament is due to return with the Queen’s Speech – the day before Mr Johnson had hoped to hold a snap election.
October 17-18: A crunch EU summit in Brussels, where Mr Johnson has vowed he will try to get a Brexit deal despite Remainers ‘wrecking’ his negotiating position.
October 19: If there is no Brexit deal by this date Remainer legislation obliges the PM to beg the EU for an extension to avoid No Deal.
October 21: Decisive votes on the Queen’s Speech, which could pave the way for a confidence vote.
October 31: The current deadline for the UK to leave the EU.
November/December: An election looks inevitable, but Labour is hinting it might push the date back towards Christmas to humiliate the PM.
However, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Mr Juncker said there would have to be checks.
He added: ‘I’m not an architect of new border stations. The British have to tell us exactly the architectural nature of this border.
‘I don’t like a border because after the Good Friday Agreement, and this Good Friday Agreement has to be respected in all its parts, the situation in Ireland has improved. We should not play with this.’
He said: ‘We have to make sure that the interests of the European Union and of the internal market will be preserved.
‘An animal entering Northern Ireland without border control can enter without any kind of control the European Union via the southern part of the Irish island. This will not happen. We have to preserve the health and the safety of our citizens.’
He said the EU ‘is in no way responsible for any kind of consequences entailed by the Brexit’ as ‘that’s a British decision’.
He suggested that some MPs are ‘forgetting about the history’ of Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Mr Juncker’s meeting with Mr Johnson in Luxembourg on September 16 came just hours before the country’s prime minister Xavier Bettel criticised the Tory leader and left an empty podium for him at a press conference.
The European Commission president said: ‘I don’t know if this is helpful. I rather consider that this was not very helpful but it’s his decision.’
Mr Juncker also criticised former UK prime minister David Cameron over the build-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, claiming he failed to explain the agreement reached with Brussels.
‘We agreed the deal back in 2016, I think, between David and ourselves but this deal was never explained to the British public. Never.’
Mr Juncker told El Pais that he believed ‘we still have a chance to reach an agreement’ and that Mr Johnson was sincere in his desire for a deal.
‘I don’t share the views of those who think that Johnson is playing games with us and with himself,’ he reportedly said.
Mr Cameron today warned Mr Johnson that ‘breaking the law is not a good idea’.
Brexit talks look deadlocked over the demand from Boris Johnson (pictured in No10 last week) that the hated backstop mechanism
With the Supreme Court hoping to announce its decision this week on the legality of the Prime Minister’s prorogation of Parliament, Mr Cameron told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday: ‘No deal is not a good idea. Breaking the law is not a good idea. Focus everything you’ve got on getting that deal, and that’s what he’s doing, to be fair to him.’
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the Government will respect the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Prime Minister’s move to suspend Parliament in the run-up to Brexit.
Mr Raab told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: ‘Of course we will respect whatever the legal ruling is from the Supreme Court.
‘But I think we are getting a little bit ahead of ourselves.’
Mr Raab said: ‘We will see what the Supreme Court will decide.
‘We are confident, we wouldn’t have appealed the case if we weren’t confident in the position that the Government had taken.
‘I can reassure you, of course we are going to abide by the Supreme Court judgment.’
Asked if the Government would prorogue Parliament again if it wins the case, Mr Raab said: ‘I think, let’s wait and see what the first judgment decides and then we’ll understand the lie of the land.’
Pressed on whether Northern Ireland could have different EU customs arrangements to the rest of the UK, Mr Raab said: ‘No, of course, that would be wrong.’
What is the Irish backstop and why is it so divisive?
The so-called Irish border backstop is one of the most controversial parts of the existing Brexit deal. This is what it means:
What is the backstop?
The backstop was invented to meet promises to keep open the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland even if there is no comprehensive UK-EU trade deal.
The divorce deal says it will kick in automatically at the end of the Brexit transition period if that agreement is not in place.
It effectively keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU, and Northern Ireland in both the customs union and single market.
This means many EU laws will keep being imposed on the UK, restricting its ability to do its own trade deals. It also means regulatory checks on some goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Why have Ireland and the EU demanded it?
Because the UK is leaving the customs union and single market, the EU said it needed guarantees that people and goods circulating inside its border – in this case in Ireland – met its rules.
This is covered by the Brexit transition, which effectively maintains the status quo, and can in theory be done in the comprehensive EU-UK trade deal.
But the EU said there had to be a backstop to cover what happens in any gap between the transition and final deal.
Why do critics hate it?
Because Britain cannot decide when to leave the backstop.
Getting out – even if there is a trade deal – can only happen if both sides agree and Brexiteers fear the EU will unreasonably demand the backstop continues so EU law continues to apply in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland MPs also hate the regulatory border in the Irish Sea, insisting it unreasonably carves up the United Kingdom.
What are the UK’s new proposals?
The latest blueprint being floated would not be the same as a previous Northern Ireland-only backstop floated by Brussels, which was dismissed by Theresa May as something no British PM could accept.
That would have involved the province staying within the EU’s tax jurisdiction.
Instead, the idea is thought to be a much looser alignment of agricultural and food regulations with Ireland.
That could help avoid many checks on the border, but it is far from clear it would be acceptable either to the EU or the DUP.