Boris Johnson has demanded that Angela Merkel drop the controversial Irish backstop from the Brexit agreement, amid warnings from Europe that he is setting himself on a “collision course” with the continent.
In a phone call on Friday, the prime minister told the German chancellor that “the only solution that would allow us to make progress on a deal is to abolish the backstop” – and that the alternative was no deal.
EU leaders were unimpressed by Mr Johnson’s demand that the border policy be removed from the withdrawal agreement, a stipulation he laid out to MPs on Thursday.
“He seems to have made a deliberate decision to set Britain on a collision course with the European Union and with Ireland in relation to the Brexit negotiations,” Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told reporters in Belfast on Friday.
Speaking after a meeting with the UK’s new Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith, Mr Coveney said said Mr Johnson’s comments were “very unhelpful”.
The German government also appeared unmoved by the new prime minister’s approach and suggested it would fail.
“My message to the new British prime minister is clear: ‘Boris, the election campaign is over. Calm yourself down. We should be fair with each other’,” Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth, told the broadcaster ZDF.
“What do not help are new provocations. Instead, dialogue – one must be able to expect that from the leader of a friendly nation, one that is still a member of the European Union.”
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said on Thursday in a letter to member states that Mr Johnson’s statement to the House of Commons earlier that day had been “rather combative”. He said the content of the address was “of course unacceptable” and incompatible with the negotiating mandate agreed by EU leaders.
Mr Barnier also suggested that Mr Johnson’s approach was an attempt to test EU unity, which has so far been mostly solid – at least in public.
The 27 remaining EU leaders agree the European Commission’s negotiating objectives at regular meetings and consultations; Mr Barnier and his team enact the policy on a day-to-day basis.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The prime minister today received a call of congratulations from German chancellor Angela Merkel. They agreed to continue to strengthen our bilateral relationship, and to work together closely on foreign policy and security issues.
“On Brexit, the PM said that he would be energetic in reaching out as much as possible to try to achieve a deal, but he reiterated the message he delivered in the House of Commons yesterday: parliament has rejected the Withdrawal Agreement three times and so the UK must fully prepare for the alternative – which is to leave without a deal on October 31.
“He said the only solution that would allow us to make progress on a deal is to abolish the backstop. The PM and chancellor agreed to stay in contact.”