On Brexit, Macron and Johnson Are At Odds Over the Irish Backstop

Screengrab of a live video streamed on Emmanuel Macron's Facebook page

This was the first official visit to France by the new British Prime Minister since his appointment at the end of July, replacing Theresa May. Boris Johnson was received Thursday, August 22, at the Elysée Palace by French President Emmanuel Macron, two days before the beginning of the annual G7. But the head of the United Kingdom government was not just visiting to talk geopolitics and the global economy, he had mainly come to plead his case on the contentious issue of Brexit.

As October 31, the day by which the U.K. must exit from the European bloc, fast approaches, Johnson, who wants to deliver Brexit to the British people “whatever the cost,” is grappling with the issue of the Irish backstop.

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The Prime Minister does not want this safety net, despite the fact that it was negotiated into the agreement that Great Britain and the European Union validated in November 2018. “I think that the technical solutions are readily available” when it comes to the matter of how to “check for contraband, to check for rules of origin, to stop smuggling” without setting up border checkpoints with Ireland, Johnson insisted at the joint press conference between the two leaders held before their meeting.

The backstop has always been a contentious point between the two parties during the negotiation of Brexit. This solution — despite being proposed by the U.K. and now rejected by some of the parliamentarians and the new Prime Minister — is an “indispensable guarantee” Macron reiterated, “to preserve stability in Ireland [and] to preserve the integrity of the single market, which is the foundation of the European project.”

The French President, who regretted that he was always “depicted as the toughest of the group” of European heads of state, reaffirmed his position: no renegotiation is possible… at least if it jeopardizes these two aforementioned principles. “If there are things that can be modified and that are in line with both objectives, we must find them in the coming months, otherwise the problem becomes deeper and more political, and negotiations won’t be able to solve it, it is a political choice that the Prime Minister will have to make.”

For his part, Johnson said he wanted to “get a deal.” “I know that with energy and creativity and application we can find forward,” said Johnson. But for him there is no chance of postponing the departure date: it will be October 31 at 11 p.m. London time, “deal or no deal.” He spoke of his attachment to the bilateral relationship between France and the United Kingdom, underlining the economic link between the two countries by citing examples such as the construction of the Concorde and the Chunnel.

“Whatever happens with Brexit, it is our joint ambition, U.K. and France, that we should deepen and intensify our economic interpenetration,” he argued, before recalling that “London remains one of the biggest French cities on earth, and long may it so remain.” He promised to support “the 3.2 million E.U. nationals including French citizens” in the U.K.

In the meantime, the European Union is ready, confirmed the French President. “We are actively preparing for all scenarios, we have a shared responsibility to our citizens, our territories and our businesses,” said Macron, for whom “the future of the U.K., based on our history and our values, is in Europe.” The press conference concluded with a “Let’s work,” declared by Macron in English.

The future of the UK, based on our history and our values, is in Europe,”