By Andrew Rettman
New Brexit talks will take place twice a week to avoid a no-deal “nightmare”, as the British government takes flak over its parliament shutdown.
“Time for both sides to step up the tempo,” British prime minister Boris Johnson said in London on Thursday (28 August).
“I have been encouraged by my discussions with EU leaders over recent weeks that there is a willingness to talk about alternatives to the anti-democratic backstop,” he added.
He spoke after the UK’s new Brexit negotiator, David Frost, visited Brussels for the first time on Wednesday.
The “backstop” is part of a previous Brexit deal to keep open the Irish border by keeping Britain in an EU customs union for the time being.
It has been the key sticking point in talks, amid concern that a new hard border could put at risk Irish peace accords.
Germany and France have given the UK 30 days to come up with a new solution to the Irish problem.
Denmark and the Netherlands have also urged the EU to be open to new ideas.
Europe ought to be “as flexible and positive as possible”, Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen said in Copenhagen on Thursday.
“We still hope it will be possible to avoid a no-deal Brexit and we are looking forward to any proposals from the British government that fit into the withdrawal agreement,” Dutch foreign minister Stephan Blok also said at an EU meeting in Helsinki.
But the EU would not throw Ireland under the bus to please the UK, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said the same day.
“The EU will continue to protect … peace and stability on the island of Ireland,” he said.
And others in the Finnish capital were less optimistic the UK would find a last-minute solution.
A no-deal Brexit would “look like a kind of nightmare, the day after – we don’t know what will happen with people, with trade, with traffic,” Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto said.
“But we are also united in our position on the [Brexit] agreement which was decided, and that remains our position,” he added.
Johnson’s shutdown of parliament ahead of Brexit day on 31 October to force a no-deal exit if need be added to the gloom.
“I fear so, yes,” Austrian foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg said on whether a no-deal scenario was more likely.
“That is the case and we have to prepare,” Estonian foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu also said.
For his part, Ben Wallace, Britain’s defence minister, gave a candid explanation on the parliament manoeuvre when he was caught on open mic at the Helsinki meeting.
“Parliament has been very good at saying what it doesn’t want. It has been awful at saying what it wants. That’s the reality. So eventually any leader has to, you know, try,” he said.
“Our system is a winner-takes-all system. If you win a parliamentary majority, you control everything, you control the timetable … you pretty much are in command of the whole thing. And we’ve suddenly found ourselves with no majority and a coalition and that’s not easy for our system,” he added.
Johnson is holding on to power via a deal with a Northern Irish unionist party.
The uproar over his parliament gag could force a general election, creating fresh uncertainty on how or if Brexit will happen.
In the meantime, the British government is to spend £100m (€110m) on a Brexit information campaign entitled “Get ready” ahead of the October deadline.
But the harm to Britain’s image might cost more to repair.
“Britain has relied on parliamentarianism and parliamentary sovereignty over 300 years. The country is now seriously talking about freezing the work of parliament,” Finnish Europe minister, Tytti Tuppurainen, said on Thursday.
“Listening to parliaments is always good for democracy … it is better to keep them open,” European Parliament president David Sassoli also said.
“Makes me really sad to see what Brexit is doing to one of the great democracies of our time,” Finland’s former prime minister, Alexander Stubb, added.