/Brexit deal further off than ever as blame game intensifies

Brexit deal further off than ever as blame game intensifies

Brexit negotiations didn’t collapse on Tuesday — but only because in the EU’s eyes they never really resumed after Theresa May’s resignation last summer.

Still, after a turbulent day, the already-remote chances of a deal before next week’s European Council summit seemed closer to nil, though London and Brussels gave sharply differing accounts of why that appeared to be the case.

At least this much everyone agreed on: The day started with a tough phone call between U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that highlighted just how far apart the two sides still are.

But from there, the accounts diverged wildly.

A read-out of the call from No. 10 Downing Street, provided to several British news organizations and undisputed by the prime minister’s official spokesperson, accused Merkel of effectively torpedoing any chance of a deal. The account of the conversation claimed that Merkel had hardened the EU position, insisting that Northern Ireland remain part of the EU’s customs territory, and in alignment with EU regulations “forever.”

“We simply don’t see how it could work in practice. We simply don’t understand it” — A senior EU official on Boris Johnson’s Brexit proposal

“If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible, not just now but ever,” the No. 10 official was quoted as saying. “It also made clear that they are willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement,” the official added.

For EU officials, the read-out of the call with Merkel, who has never taken maximalist positions on Brexit, seemed to be evidence of something they suspected all along: that Johnson was not really interested in reaching an accord. Rather, the clandestine briefing suggested his aides were merely laying the groundwork to blame Brussels for the failure of negotiations.

European Council President Donald Tusk, who was in Berlin to meet with Merkel, quickly blasted Johnson on Twitter, accusing him of playing a “stupid blame game” and demanding clarity of Britain’s intentions.

While Tusk is known for direct, occasionally provocative, statements, the tweet was unusually forceful. It accused Johnson of not wanting a deal; not wanting an extension; and not wanting to revoke the U.K.’s Brexit notification under Article 50.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Boris Johnson by phone on Tuesday morning. In London’s telling, it did not go well | Michele Tantussi/AFP via Getty Images

Quo vadis?” Tusk asked: where are you going?

Was the European Council president genuinely outraged? That might seem hard to believe given that Brussels has become accustomed to heaps of insults from London.

Or was Tusk, who has made clear that he still hopes Brexit will never happen, actually moving aggressively to gain an advantage over Johnson in the very “stupid blame game” that he was trying to pin on the British prime minister?

In fact it was a bit of both, according to interviews with EU officials, including some close to Tusk.

On one level, the EU leader was apoplectic.

One senior EU official summed up, with evident disgust, the spin coming from Downing Street thusly: “Blaming EU for not wanting a deal, instead of talking and coming forward with operational proposals on how to solve the consequence of Brexit.”

While the U.K. negotiator, David Frost, was in Brussels on Tuesday, EU officials have pointedly refused to describe the ongoing meetings as negotiations. Brussels argues there is no back-and-forth to be had unless and until the British side can explain or rectify what the EU views as numerous flaws in Johnson’s proposal.

“People should keep a cool head and use the time and opportunity that is still available” — An EU diplomat

“We simply don’t see how it could work in practice,” the senior official said. “We simply don’t understand it.”

The European Commission’s chief spokeswoman Mina Andreeva brushed aside suggestions that the discussions had fallen apart. “Technical talks are continuing today, so I don’t see how talks could have actually been broken down, if they are happening today, and in the days to continue,” she said.

Andreeva declined to characterize Johnson’s call with Merkel, but said that there had been no change in stance as far as Brussels was concerned.

“The EU position has not changed,” she said. “We want a deal, we are working for a deal with the United Kingdom, and under no circumstances will we accept that the EU wants to do harm to the Good Friday Agreement. The purpose of our work is to protect it in all its dimensions, and at all times.”

Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag, said that there was also no new position in Berlin. It has always been “unrealistic” to think a deal was possible based on Johnson’s proposal, he tweeted.

Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Germany’s Bundestag | Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images

But on another level, Tusk was very much playing the high-stakes political game that has run parallel to the substantive negotiations from the very beginning.

In recent months, EU officials have taken up a more aggressive strategy, responding rapid-fire to what they view as disinformation from the U.K. side. And the swiftness of Tusk’s tweet on Tuesday suggested that with the European Council leaders’ summit just days away, Brussels could hardly afford to let Downing Street’s read-out of the Merkel call go unanswered.

At the same time, EU officials and diplomats seemed relatively tranquil in their response to the back-and-forth — a reflection that many have concluded the October 31 Brexit deadline will be extended. That’s largely because the U.K. parliament passed a law to prevent a no-deal scenario and EU officials see little chance of Johnson circumventing it.

Despite such confidence, EU27 capitals quickly circled wagons. Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister, wrote that Tusk’s criticism of Johnson “reflects the frustration across EU and the enormity of what’s at stake for us all.”

In an interview with France’s Les Echos, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said if there is a no-deal Brexit, it would result in the “decline” of the U.K. and a “weakening of the sources of growth” on the Continent. Juncker said he “did not accept” the Brexit blame game of “pinning the eventual failure of the negotiations on the EU,” adding that the “original sin” lies with the U.K., not with the EU side.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Still, not everybody was thrilled with the combative turn of events, nor at Tusk for losing his cool, even if it might have been a carefully planned strategic move.

“People should keep a cool head and use the time and opportunity that is still available,” one EU diplomat said. “No point in reducing space artificially. This has been a difficult process for three years now, surely we can all keep focus for another 21 days.” The diplomat nonetheless conceded that an agreement was “not likely,” while adding: “If the U.K. wants a deal, we stand ready.”

The sour tone continued later in the day during a meeting in London between Johnson and the European Parliament president, David Sassoli, who said that the British prime minister had been as intransigent as British officials had said Merkel was earlier in the day.

“I feel like it was [a] TV talk show rather than a meeting of this sort,” Sassoli said, adding that Johnson had refused to budge an inch, but merely repeated his insistence that the U.K. will leave at the end of this month “with or without a deal” and will not request an extension.

Sassoli said the U.K.’s current suggestions put forward to the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier “are not an actual proposal.”

“If the ideas are limited to what he handed over to [EU negotiator Michel] Barnier,” Sassoli said, “he doesn’t want an agreement.”

The day was bookended by another phone call, this time a 40-minute chat between Johnson and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. “Both sides strongly reiterated their desire to reach a Brexit deal,” a Downing Street spokesperson said more positively.

It’s proof that despite Brexit tensions breaking out into the open, the talks have not yet crashed and burned. The real dispute though is over whether they have gotten off the ground at all.

Jacopo Barigazzi, Lili Bayer, Charlie Cooper, and Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting.

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