BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated Wednesday that she’s still holding out for an amicable departure of Britain from the European Union, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson travelled to Berlin for the start of a high-stakes tour to press his case for reopening negotiations on Brexit.
Positions on Britain’s divorce from the EU have hardened on both sides of the English Channel, putting Britain on course for a no-deal exit at the end of October that could cause considerable economic damage to both.
The EU has ruled out renegotiating the Brexit agreement it hammered out with Johnson’s predecessor last year. Johnson’s office, meanwhile, says “there’s no prospect of a deal” unless the EU scraps a contentious clause designed to prevent the return of checks along the Irish border, which London says could leave Britain tied to the bloc indefinitely.
Speaking at an aviation industry conference in Leipzig, Merkel acknowledged that international trade tensions and uncertainty over Brexit are weighing on the global economy.
“And that’s why I will of course also discuss in talks with the British Prime Minister, who is visiting me today, how we can achieve an exit of Great Britain from the European Union that’s as frictionless as possible,” she said.
Merkel has repeatedly made it clear she will toe the EU line that the carefully negotiated Brexit deal shouldn’t be revisited.
Johnson insisted Monday that the Irish border backstop clause must be scrapped and replaced with “alternative arrangements” to regulate cross-border trade. In the past, border checkpoints between EU member Ireland and U.K. member Northern Ireland have been a flashpoint for sectarian violence.
“I think it’s a bit paradoxical that the EU side is talking about us putting up all the barriers. We’ve made it clear 1,000 times we don’t want to see any checks on the Northern Irish frontier at all,” Johnson told ITV.
In a letter to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, Johnson said the Irish backstop was “anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the U.K.” because it would impose EU trade rules on Northern Ireland and create a regulatory border between the province and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Johnson said the backstop also threatens the peace process in Northern Ireland because it would give control of large parts of the economic and commercial life of the province to an external body, thus “weakening the delicate balance” between its rival factions.
Tusk responded with a ringing defence of the backstop.
“Those against the backstop, and not proposing realistic alternatives, in fact support re-establishing a border,” Tusk tweeted Tuesday. “Even if they do not admit it.”
Former British Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated the withdrawal agreement with the EU, but it was rejected by the U.K. Parliament three times. Johnson, who has long campaigned for Britain to take a tougher line with the EU, replaced May as prime minister last month.
After meeting with Merkel, Johnson goes to Paris on Thursday for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, then on to a three-day summit of G-7 leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, which begins Saturday in Biarritz, France.
Since taking office, Johnson has said he wants to reach Brexit agreement with the EU but that Britain will leave the bloc on Oct. 31 even without a deal. Holding out the possibility of a no-deal Brexit is the only way to force the EU to negotiate, he says.
“He’s (Johnson) saying … he will negotiate energetically in the pursuit of a deal, he’s very happy to sit down and to talk to EU leaders, but he’s making clear that the backstop needs to be removed,” Robert Jenrick, a British cabinet minister, told the BBC on Wednesday. “That is the only prospect of securing a deal.”
The withdrawal agreement is just the first step in Britain’s exit from the EU and will be followed by likely years of negotiations on future relations.
In addition to the withdrawal agreement, May’s government agreed to a “political declaration” that spells out goals for close co-operation on trade, immigration and regulatory matters.
On Wednesday, Merkel cited the need for a new air traffic agreement between the EU and Britain. She noted that, as a third country, the U.K. can’t expect to enjoy the same benefits as an EU member state.
Thomas Matussek, a former German ambassador to the U.K., said Merkel is likely to offer concessions on the political declaration, but she can’t compromise on the “four freedoms” that underpin EU institutions: the free movement of people, goods, services and capital.
The backstop is designed to protect the integrity of the European single market while ensuring that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“We cannot throw Ireland under the bus,” Matussek told the BBC. “What message would that send to other members of the EU family if we gave up that sort of loyalty and solidarity?”
Kirka reported from London; Kirsten Grieshaber contributed to this report.