Thought the EU has got nothing for Boris Johnson? Think again.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gave the new British prime minister his mobile phone number on Thursday.
The exchange of personal telephone numbers appeared to be the highlight of a brief, late-afternoon phone conversation in which the two leaders apparently agreed on absolutely nothing except that they would stay in touch — one way or another.
Johnson used his first appearance in the House of Commons as prime minister to proclaim that he would seek a renegotiated Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that eliminates the backstop provision on the Northern Ireland border — a demand that the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, quickly dismissed as “unacceptable.”
Johnson’s speech, which Barnier branded “rather combative,” prompted the negotiator to send a letter to EU leaders urging them to remain calm.
If Juncker, who famously insists on carrying an old-style flip phone, wanted to tell Johnson to flip off, he apparently managed to hold his tongue.
But a Commission spokeswoman, providing a brief summary of the Juncker-Johnson phone call, did not even try to put a positive spin on things. She made clear that Juncker expressed no willingness to budge a millimeter, let alone an imperial inch, on the Withdrawal Agreement, which Brussels has stated repeatedly is not open for renegotiation.
“President Juncker congratulated Prime Minister Johnson on his appointment, and reaffirmed his commitment to working together in the best possible way,” the spokeswoman said. “President Juncker listened to what Prime Minister Johnson had to say, reiterating the EU’s position that the Withdrawal Agreement is the best and only agreement possible – in line with the European Council guidelines.”
“President Juncker also underlined that the Commission remains at the disposal of the United Kingdom to add language to the Political Declaration in line with what the 27 EU leaders recalled when they met in April earlier this year,” the spokeswoman added, “and to analyze any ideas put forward by the United Kingdom, providing they are compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement.”
Translation: the backstop stays; and don’t bother to waste time blathering about “alternative arrangements” and other mumbo-jumbo about using technology that hasn’t been invented yet to safeguard the integrity of the EU’s single market along the Irish border.
An assessment of the call provided by Downing Street effectively confirmed the stand-off over the backstop, and the vague commitment to stay in touch, but London put a tad more emphasis on Juncker’s congratulatory message.
“The Prime Minister today received a call of congratulation from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker,” a No. 10 spokesman said. “The PM thanked the President for his message.”
“On Brexit, the PM reiterated that he wants a deal, and will be energetic in pursuit of finding a way forward, but said the Withdrawal Agreement has been rejected three times by the UK Parliament and will not pass in its current form,” the spokesman added. “The PM said that if an agreement is to be reached it must be understood that the way to a deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop.”
Johnson is widely regarded in Brussels as a false prophet of the Vote Leave campaign, who spread lies about the EU and made fantastical promises to voters about what Britain would be like after leaving the European Union. Now Johnson has appointed many of his Leave allies to some of the highest positions in the British government.
The new British PM has threatened to accomplish Brexit by the current deadline of October 31, “do or die.” But there does not appear to be a majority in the British parliament for a no-deal outcome, and the EU is insisting loudly that it wants a negotiated settlement. Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has proclaimed publicly that she would support another extension of the deadline if requested by London.
As for Juncker, he apparently suggested that Johnson get back to him once the U.K. has sorted out all the political disagreements on its end.
“The two exchanged mobile phone numbers and agreed to remain in touch,” the EU spokeswoman said. “President Juncker reiterated that the Commission remains available over the coming weeks should the United Kingdom wish to hold talks and clarify its position in more detail.”
The British spokesman said, “The PM and the President agreed to stay in contact.”
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