The European Union has rebuffed Boris Johnson’s attempts to tear up the Irish backstop, in a coordinated response that appeared to close the door on further meaningful Brexit negotiations.
In remarks shortly before the prime minister departed for a whistle-stop tour to meet European leaders, Johnson put the blame for the EU’s hardline response at the feet of Conservative rebels, claiming his negotiating strategy was being undermined by those who said they could prevent no deal.
The president of the European council, Donald Tusk, accused the British government of failing to admit that its policies would lead to the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
As the standoff played out, the government confirmed that British officials would stop attending most EU meetings from 1 September, a move denounced by critics as showing contempt for British influence in Brussels and allies across Europe.
Johnson suggested the EU’s position was influenced by the manoeuvres of Conservative MPs who have been examining legislative methods to stop no deal in the House of Commons, including former cabinet ministers like Philip Hammond.
Downing Street has insisted that leaving on 31 October cannot be stopped by any means, even if parliament were to pass legislation.
“One thing that slightly, I think, complicates the picture is that our EU friends still clearly think that there is a possibility that parliament will block Brexit,” the prime minister said. “And as long as they think there’s a possibility that parliament will block Brexit they are unlikely to be minded to make the concessions that we need. So it is going to take a bit of patience.”
The standoff set the stage for tense encounters between Johnson and Angela Merkel in Berlin and Emmanuel Macron in Paris, before a gathering of G7 leaders on Saturday.
The German chancellor is expected to dismiss Johnson’s call to scrap the backstop when she meets him on Wednesday.
“The letter to the president of the European council is not a serious offer, and Boris Johnson knows it,” said Norbert Röttgen, an ally of Merkel who heads the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee. “If Johnson really wanted to achieve something on his visits to Paris and Berlin, he would have been well advised against writing this letter.”
Tusk, who is also expected to meet Johnson this weekend, wrote: “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.”
In a sign of the EU’s carefully coordinated response, the European commission issued its own statement minutes later saying it shared Tusk’s view.
A commission spokeswoman welcomed the UK government’s “engagement and commitment to an orderly withdrawal” while making clear its objections.
“We also note that the letter does not provide a legal operational solution to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland,” she said. “It does not set out what any alternative arrangements could be and in fact it recognises that there is no guarantee that such arrangements will be in place by the end of the transitional period.”
Johnson admitted that the EU’s position was “a bit negative” but suggested Brussels must acknowledge the deal had been summarily rejected by the UK parliament.
“I saw what Donald Tusk had to say, and it wasn’t redolent of a sense of optimism,” he said. “But I think, actually, we will get there. I think there’s a real sense now that something needs to be done with this backstop.”
The prime minister said the UK had no intention of introducing any sort of new border checks or infrastructure at the Irish border. “It’s a bit of a paradox because it is the other side, a bit odd, the other side of the argument, the EU, who seem to think it might be necessary to have checks for them to preserve the integrity of the single market,” he said.
Johnson had dashed any prospect of an early compromise in a letter on Monday night when he called on the EU to scrap the backstop, which he said was anti-democratic and “inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state”.
The letter was addressed to Tusk, who chairs EU summits. Copies were also sent to EU27 leaders and the head of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.
As the EU made its first public statements, diplomats from the 27 countries were sent an analysis that described key arguments in Johnson’s letter as incorrect and misleading.
The internal document seen by the Guardian states it was “incorrect” to suggest the people of Northern Ireland would have no influence over EU laws that applied to them, pointing to provisions in the Brexit agreement.
Officials had already strongly rejected Johnson’s claim that the backstop was anti-democratic, pointing to the fact Northern Ireland had voted to remain in the EU and non-unionist parties were in favour of the backstop.
Johnson’s claim that it would be possible for two separate legal and economic jurisdictions to exist on the island of Ireland with an open border was judged “misleading” as EU law provided “the common framework needed to enable frictionless trade between member states today”.
While the EU has said it was ready to examine alternative arrangements to the backstop, officials have stressed that no such options exist today anywhere in the world.
Neale Richmond, an Irish senator, said Johnson’s claim that the backstop posed a threat to the Good Friday agreement was “very disappointing language”.
“The negotiations ended in November,” he told BBC Radio 4. “The British government in good faith agreed the withdrawal agreement. And the backstop isn’t impossible to get out of; that is simply misleading. However, it cannot be unilaterally exited by one state. What’s the point of the backstop if one side can simply just rip it up?”
He ruled out a time limit on the backstop. “It is an insurance policy to protect a very fragile peace deal, therefore it needs the buy-in of both sides, because both the British and Irish government are co-guarantors of that Good Friday agreement.”
An Irish government source played down the significance of Johnson’s letter, saying: “The letter just reiterates the British government’s position. The EU position remains clear. The withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated and the backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement.”
The backstop was consistent with the Good Friday agreement and did not undermine the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, an analysis that London shared during and after negotiations, the source said. “It’s disappointing that the British government cannot stand over the commitment it gave in 2017 and 2018.”
Guy Verhofstadt, who chairs the European parliament’s Brexit steering group, tweeted he did not see any majority in the UK parliament to remove the backstop. “It is a vital insurance policy, negotiated in good faith and supported by the people of the island of Ireland. The time for bluster and political blame games is fast running out.”
Last week a leaked German government paper revealed that Berlin saw a “high probability” of a no-deal Brexit on 31 October as it was currently unforeseeable that Johnson would change his “tough negotiating position”.