(CN) — Talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom on reaching a Brexit deal appeared to be at risk of breaking down on Tuesday, according to British media reports.
The BBC and other media cited officials in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government who said they expected the talks to go nowhere. EU officials, however, said the talks were continuing.
The apparent breakdown raises the specter of Johnson's government becoming more antagonistic toward the EU and engaging in an increasingly bitter political fight with European leaders.
On Tuesday morning, Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone to discuss how a deal could be reached, British media reported. After the phone call, Downing Street told reporters that a deal appeared “essentially impossible not just now but ever.”
If talks falter, the political and legal fight in the U.K. over whether the country will leave the EU on Oct. 31 would intensify too. Johnson is pledging to lead the U.K. out of the EU without a deal on Halloween, even though Parliament has passed legislation to prevent this.
Last week, Johnson proposed a set of arrangements over Northern Ireland and the border with Ireland that he called a “fair and reasonable compromise.” The question of Northern Ireland is a key sticking point in talks between the EU and the U.K. The EU and Ireland, an EU member, want Northern Ireland to remain closely aligned with the EU indefinitely, but Johnson and his backers oppose this arrangement.
Under Johnson's plan, Northern Ireland would stay aligned with the EU's single market in key economic areas, but leave the EU's customs union along with the rest of the U.K. But, critically, his proposal also allows the regional government in Northern Ireland the power to withdraw from close EU alignment.
Such conditions are unacceptable to Ireland on many grounds. Irish politicians worry Johnson's plan could lead to the return of border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which in turn could renew sectarian violence.
Johnson's government accuses the EU and Ireland of endangering the peace in the region by refusing to accept his solutions to the Northern Ireland question.
Ireland has the backing of the EU's most powerful countries, including France and Germany. In the morning call on Tuesday, Merkel reportedly reiterated the EU's position on Northern Ireland and urged Johnson to reconsider his stance.
Reports of the talks coming apart were not a surprise. European politicians have accused Johnson of offering proposals that he knew would be unacceptable and said he was seeking to put the blame on the EU for a breakdown in talks.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, made that claim on Tuesday in a tweet.
“Boris Johnson, what’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game,” Tusk said. “At stake is the future of Europe and the U.K. as well as the security and interests of our people.”
Johnson's strategy hinges on winning a probable general election by campaigning on a promise to lead the U.K. out of the EU. His election rhetoric would paint the EU and his domestic political opponents as seeking to squash Brexit and undermine the will of British voters who favored leaving the EU in a 2016 referendum.
At the same time, the prime minister is seeking to fend off a political threat to the Tories posed by the Brexit Party, a fledgling party founded by British nationalist leader Nigel Farage. To stave off Farage's move to woo Tory voters, Johnson must aggressively pursue making Brexit happen.
Johnson has been stymied in his pursuit of Brexit by a divided Parliament and by pro-European rebels within his Tory party who have defied him by switching parties and voting against his pro-Brexit plans. Johnson no longer wields a majority in Parliament and is banking on new elections restoring a Tory majority. Polls show Johnson winning a general election and possibly securing a majority.
Tuesday's announcement of a breakdown in talks was expected, and was presaged on Monday night by a report on the website of the conservative weekly magazine The Spectator.
The Spectator piece created a stir by citing a Downing Street official who said the negotiations would end this week and that the U.K. government would seek to punish the EU countries over a tough stance on Brexit.
“If this deal dies in the next few days, then it won’t be revived,” the official told The Spectator.
The official warned that a breakdown in talks would make the Conservative Party more aggressive in pushing for Brexit and that the government's resolve to leave the EU with or without a deal is not a bluff.
The Downing Street official also said Johnson's government would look favorably on EU countries that support Britain's exit and ensure they “go [to] the front of the queue for future cooperation” while those hindering Brexit “will go to the bottom of the queue.”
The official said that countries blocking Brexit would be seen as conducting “hostile interference in domestic politics.”
On Oct. 17 and 18, European leaders are scheduled to meet and decide whether to allow the U.K. to delay its departure date from the EU, which is set for Oct. 31. British diplomats reportedly are working to persuade some EU countries to oppose granting an extension. An extension must be approved by all EU members. Hungary and Poland, which are run by nationalist governments in conflict with the core leadership of the EU, are viewed as possible allies in this quest by British diplomats.
Parliament has passed legislation to force the U.K. government to delay Brexit if it has not struck a divorce deal by the upcoming EU meeting. Johnson, though, may seek ways around that legislation and force the U.K. out on Oct. 31.
“We will also make clear that this government will not negotiate further so any delay would be totally pointless,” the Downing Street official told The Spectator. “They think now that if there is another delay we will keep coming back with new proposals. This won’t happen. We’ll either leave with no deal on 31 October or there will be an election and then we will leave with no deal.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)
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