Britain insists Brexit talks are not a ‘sham’
British and European customs experts met for technical talks on Wednesday, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted his quest to renegotiate the terms of Brexit is not a sham.
European Union officials sat down with the British delegation, but diplomats warned that Johnson's dramatic loss of a parliamentary majority had undermined chances of progress.
The European Commission, meanwhile, said that Britain had not come up with any alternative for the so-called "Irish backstop" that Johnson insists must be stripped from the accord.
One day after Johnson saw his governing majority wiped out in a parliamentary revolt against his Brexit strategy, Johnson faced the claim that he aims to crash out without a deal.
"These negotiations that he talks about are a sham. All he's doing is running down the clock," opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn declared at a rowdy prime minister's questions in the British parliament.
Johnson retorted "you don't negotiate in public" and insisted "we are making substantial progress and we will get the backstop out. We will get an agreement that I think this house can approve."
But there is no sign of any such development in Brussels, where EU officials were focused on stepping up planning to mitigate the economic impact of the feared no-deal outcome.
"There may be twists and turns in political developments in London right now, but our position is stable," spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said, as the EU posted its latest planning document.
This report described the backstop as "the only solution identified" that would protect the Northern Ireland peace agreement and the EU internal market without closing the Irish border.
Johnson insists the backstop, which keeps Britain in the EU customs union until another way is found to keep the Northern Irish border open, must go if the UK is to sign up to any new deal for an orderly divorce.
Nevertheless, London's Brexit "sherpa", senior diplomat David Frost, and a team of experts were in Brussels for talks with EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier's task force.
A British official source told AFP the talks would go on all month and "intensify", arguing the prime minister "wants to get a deal and is ready to work in an energetic and determined way to get it done".
The team intends for the talks to "run through a range of issues, including the removal of the backstop," he said.
"Discussions so far have shown that the two sides remain some distance apart on key issues but are willing to work hard to find a way through," he said.
European officials are sceptical, both that Johnson is sincere and that he has the mandate to negotiate while preparing for a likely snap election in the wake of his calamitous parliamentary defeat.
A European diplomat said EU leaders would probably agree to the third delay to Brexit beyond October 31 if the British ask and "if it prevents a chaotic Brexit."
But he stressed that the negotiations have been undermined by the crisis in Westminster.
"The fundamental problem is that the British government and parliament disagree on what they want," the European official told AFP.
"It is possible elections could bring clarification. Having a government in power which obviously does not have a majority in parliament is naturally a problem."
The EU argues that any "alternative arrangements" promoted by Johnson for the Irish border must protect the integrity of the single market, prevent a hard border and respect the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
Barnier briefed the European Commission on the talks on Wednesday before Frost's arrival and was due to meet ambassadors from the 27 other EU member states later in the day.
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