Merkel Sets Johnson Challenge: Solve Brexit Backstop in 30 Days

Merkel Sets Johnson Challenge: Solve Brexit Backstop in 30 Days

Angela Merkel has set Boris Johnson a challenge: Solve the Irish border backstop conundrum within 30 days.

At their first meeting since Johnson became British prime minister, both said they wanted to see the U.K. leave the European Union with a divorce agreement on Oct. 31. “We in the U.K. want a deal,” Johnson said on Wednesday. “We seek a deal. And I believe that we can get one.”

The problem is the Irish backstop. That’s the fallback position in the deal — negotiated with Brussels by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May — designed to keep Britain’s border open with Ireland by staying closely tied to EU rules after Brexit. Johnson has said the EU must drop it from the deal, or it won’t be accepted by the House of Commons.

Speaking alongside Johnson in Berlin, the German Chancellor said it could take years to resolve the issue — then added “perhaps we can find this solution in the next 30 days. Why not?”

Johnson embraced the challenge.

“You’ve set a very blistering timetable there — of 30 days if I understood you correctly — I’m more than happy with that,” he said. The backstop, he said, “has grave, grave defects for a sovereign democratic country like the U.K. That plainly has to go, but once we can get rid of that, if we can change it, then I think there is the real prospect of making progress very rapidly indeed.”

It will have to be. Even without Merkel’s deadline, the U.K. is on course to crash out without a deal in just over two months unless Johnson can find a compromise. His meeting with Merkel is the first step in his outreach to EU leaders. On Thursday, he’ll meet in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron, whose government now sees a no-deal Brexit as its central scenario.

Merkel said it’s up to the U.K. to put forward concrete alternatives to the backstop; Johnson agreed that the “onus is on us,” and pointed to measures that have already been proposed and dismissed in the three years of Brexit talks, including trusted trader programs and electronic pre-clearing of goods.

The backstop wasn’t Merkel’s only question for Johnson. Before he can solve that, she said, both sides will have to know what the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU is going to look like.

Essentially, Johnson has said he won’t accept a deal that doesn’t include an alternative to the backstop. The EU has always said it wants that too — but thinks it could take years to work out. What Merkel was suggesting is that the U.K. should find that solution before Oct. 31.

The two leaders had a lot to talk about, Merkel observed.

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