British Brexit negotiator David Frost is not expected to offer new ideas to replace the Irish backstop when he arrives in Brussels for talks with the European Union on Wednesday, British and European diplomats and officials said.
The question of whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a new plan to reach a deal with the EU or is bluffing to run out the clock before an abrupt exit goes to the heart of the political crisis in London, where opponents of an exit with no deal have seized control of parliamentary business to stop it.
British and EU sources both said there might be nothing of substance on offer during Frost’s visit, but gave different reasons for why this would be the case.
A British official said London was unwilling to put anything on the table for fear it would be swiftly shot down. Europeans, for their part, said they were sceptical whether Britain had any new proposals to offer at all.
Johnson demands the EU ditch the “backstop” provision of a deal reached with his predecessor Theresa May, which would require Britain to obey some EU rules until another mechanism can be found to keep the border on the island of Ireland open.
The House of Commons defeated him on Tuesday in a bid to prevent him taking Britain out of the EU without a divorce agreement on Oct.31. Johnson responded by announcing he would push for a snap election.
Johnson says he wants a deal but needs a credible threat of a no-deal exit to force the Europeans to compromise at the last minute, during a summit in mid-October.
The bloc says the backstop could be abandoned only if an alternative is found that would achieve the same ends, be legally sound and practically applicable straight away. It has put the onus on Johnson’s cabinet to come up with alternatives.
The British official said London was expecting creativity and a joint endeavour from the bloc’s side.
The EU’s executive Commission – which is negotiating Brexit for the 27 other member states – complained on Tuesday that Britain was procrastinating.
“That is because these semi-negotiations is a bluff. The British don’t have alternative arrangements, they are playing for time,” said one EU diplomat present at the Commission’s closed-door briefing.
A senior EU diplomat added: “The British position is strange. They have put precisely zero proposals on the table so how can they have any grounds for fearing they will be shot down other than the British themselves knowing that their likely proposals are inadequate.”
The Commission will also present on Wednesday its updated contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit, which would include making a natural disaster fund available to people, businesses and countries weighing under ensuing disruptions.