Brussels repels Boris Johnson’s quest for new Brexit deal

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Brussels repels Boris Johnson’s quest for new Brexit deal” was written by Heather Stewart and Lisa O’Carroll, and Daniel Boffey in Brussels, for theguardian.com on Friday 26th July 2019 00.10 Asia/Kolkata

Brussels has roundly rebuffed Boris Johnson after he laid down tough conditions for the new Brexit deal he hopes to strike over the summer.

Speaking to the House of Commons for the first time as prime minister on Thursday, Johnson reiterated his campaign pledge of ditching the Irish backstop and promised to ramp up preparations for a no-deal Brexit immediately.

“I would prefer us to leave the EU with a deal,” he said. “I would much prefer it. I believe that it is possible even at this late stage, and I will work flat-out to make it happen.

“But certain things need to be clear: the withdrawal agreement negotiated by my predecessor has been three times rejected by this house; its terms are unacceptable to this parliament and to this country.”

In a phone call later in the day, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, signalled the EU27’s determination to stick with the deal negotiated with Theresa May’s government – which includes the backstop.

“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,” a commission spokesperson said.

Juncker told Johnson the EU was willing to “add language” to the political declaration – the non-binding document that covers the future relationship – but would only consider any other proposals “providing they are compatible with the withdrawal agreement”. The spokesperson added that the two men had swapped mobile numbers.

Jean-Claude Juncker
Jean-Claude Juncker said new proposals had to be compatible with the current deal, his spokesperson said.
Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/EPA

Earlier, Johnson outlined to a noisy Commons his vision of a post-Brexit UK in 2050 as “the greatest and most prosperous economy in Europe at the centre of a new network of trade deals”.

In a speech that was loudly cheered by many Conservative MPs, he said all members of his new cabinet were committed to leaving the EU on 31 October “whatever the circumstances – and to do otherwise would cause a catastrophic loss of confidence in our political system”.

He also said he would ramp up no-deal preparations, which his official spokesman later confirmed was likely to include additional spending, and a significant public information campaign. Michael Gove will coordinate no-deal planning across the government.

The Irish government expressed concern at Johnson’s approach to Brexit as tension began to mount over the increased risk of no deal. Michael Creed, Ireland’s agriculture minister, described the new government’s stance, and the composition of Johnson’s top team, as “alarming”.

“The makeup of this government seems to be a mirror image of [Johnson’s] own viewpoint substantially and obviously that would be of concern to us,” he told RTÉ radio.

“What the [Irish] government is concerned about now is the approach of new administration in the UK to the withdrawal agreement,” he said, adding: “Obviously what we are hearing from the [UK] government is quite alarming.”

The following people are in Boris Johnson’s first cabinet:

Sajid Javid, Chancellor
Dominic Raab, Foreign secretary
Priti Patel, Home secretary
Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Robert Buckland QC, Lord Chancellor and Justice secretary
Stephen Barclay, Brexit secretary
Ben Wallace, Defence secretary
Matthew Hancock, Health secretary
Andrea Leadsom, Business secretary
Liz Truss, International trade secretary
Amber Rudd, Work and pensions secretary
Gavin Williamson, Education secretary
Theresa Villiers, Environment secretary
Robert Jenrick, Housing secretary
Grant Shapps, Transport secretary
Julian Smith, Northern Ireland secretary
Alister Jack, Scotland secretary
Alun Cairns, Wales secretary
Baroness Evans, Leader of the House of Lords
Nicky Morgan, DCMS secretary
Alok Sharma, International development secretary
James Cleverly, Party chair and minister without portfolio

These people also attend full cabinet meetings:

Rishi Sunak, Chief secretary to the Treasury
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons
Mark Spencer, Chief whip
Geoffrey Cox QC, Attorney General
Kwasai Kwarteng, Energy minister
Oliver Dowden, Paymaster general and minister for the Cabinet office
Jake Berry, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office
Esther McVey, Housing minister
Jo Johnson, Universities minister
Brandon Lewis, Security minister

In Brussels, meanwhile, Michel Barnier warned that such “combative” rhetoric was an attempt to crack the EU’s unity. In a note sent to diplomats, the bloc’s chief negotiator counselled the EU27 to stick to its principles in the face of the prime minister’s no-deal threats.

“PM Johnson has stated that if an agreement is to be reached it goes by way of eliminating the backstop. This is of course unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European council,” he warned.

In comments that signalled the growing belief in Brussels that the UK is heading towards a general election, Barnier wrote: “I note also the many strong reactions to the speech in the House of Commons. In this context we must follow carefully the further political and economic reactions and developments in the UK following this speech.

“In any case, what remains essential on our side is to remain calm, stick to our principles and guidelines and show solidarity and unity of the 27.”

Many MPs on both sides of the House of Commons believe Johnson’s bid to negotiate a new Brexit deal are merely the prelude to a general election, given the high bar he has set for success and the Tories’ slim majority.

Some of the election-ready pledges made in Johnson’s first 48 hours in Downing Street included upgrading 20 hospitals, fixing the broken social care system, cutting GP waiting times and rolling out full-fibre broadband across the country.

The presence of the Vote Leave campaign mastermind Dominic Cummings in No 10 has also fuelled speculation about an autumn poll.

1: Raising the 40% income tax threshold

Cost: £9bn. Only 12% of people in the UK earn more than £50,000 a year, so this pledge to move the 40% threshold up to £80,000 would help those on the highest incomes.

2. Increasing the starting point for national insurance contributions to £12,500

Cost: £11bn. At present people pay NICs when they earn £166 a week and income tax when they earn £12,500 a year. Johnson wants to gradually align the two systems by raising the NICs ceiling to an annual £12,500.

3. Raise education spending

Cost: £4.6bn. Theresa May’s successor says he will raise education spending to £5,000 for every secondary school pupil and £4,000 for each primary school pupil.

4. More police

Cost: £1.1bn. Johnson has promised an extra 20,000 officers.

5. Free TV licences for the over-75s

Cost: £250m. This would reverse the BBC – and George Osborne’s -decisions over this perk for pensioners.

6. Raising the level at which stamp duty is levied

Cost: £3.8bn. There have been reports that the incoming prime minister would like all house sales under £500,000 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to be exempt from stamp duty.

7. Nationwide full fibre broadband coverage by 2025

Cost: unknown. Industry experts say this is not feasible in the time available, given coverage is currently less than 10%.

8. The creation of six free ports in the UK

Cost: unknown. Johnson said while on the hustings with Jeremy Hunt that he intended to create “about six” free ports – zones designated by the government to pay little or no tax in an attempt to boost economic activity.

9. Review HS2 and build HS3

Cost: unknown. One of Johnson’s big early decisions will be whether to scrap HS2 and spend the money on alternative rail infrastructure such as linking the big cities of the north through HS3. Any savings generated by scrapping HS2 will almost certainly be recycled into other transport projects.

10. Raising the national living wage

Cost: unknown. The government employs one in six of the people working in the UK, so it would be affected by Johnson’s promise to raise the national living wage.

Larry Elliott Economics editor

Johnson will make a series of campaign-style visits in the coming days – including to Scotland, where the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, has expressed some concerns about his approach.

Outlining his Brexit stance to MPs on Thursday, Johnson said he was ready to “negotiate in good faith” to find an alternative to the Irish backstop.

“I do not accept the argument that says that these issues can only be solved by all or part of the UK remaining in the customs union or in the single market,” he said. “The evidence is that other arrangements are perfectly possible, and are also perfectly compatible with the Belfast or Good Friday agreement, to which we are of course steadfastly committed.”

Challenged by Labour’s Hilary Benn about comments from the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, ruling out a new withdrawal agreement, Johnson said the question was “redolent of the kind of defeatism and negativity that we’ve had over the last three years”.

“Why begin by assuming that our EU friends will not wish to compromise?” he asked.

Similarly, when another Labour backbencher, Yvette Cooper, asked Johnson about what practical solutions could be used for the Irish border in the absence of a trade deal or backstop, he replied that there were “abundant facilitations already available”.

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Brussels repels Boris Johnson's quest for new Brexit deal | NORTH INDIA KALEIDOSCOPE

Rajesh Ahuja

I am a veteran journalist based in Chandigarh India.I joined the profession in June 1982 and worked as a Staff Reporter with the National Herald at Delhi till June 1986. I joined The Hindu at Delhi in 1986 as a Staff Reporter and was promoted as Special Correspondent in 1993 and transferred to Chandigarh. I left The Hindu in September 2012 and launched my own newspaper ventures including this news portal and a weekly newspaper NORTH INDIA KALEIDOSCOPE (currently temporarily suspended).