BELFAST (Reuters) - Ireland said on Friday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approach to Brexit was “very unhelpful” and that the new British leader appeared set on a collision course with the European Union that would preclude an orderly exit with a deal.
Such biting criticism from Ireland, just two days since Johnson took office with a pledge to strike a new divorce deal with the EU, indicates the perils of the Brexit gambit chosen by Britain’s new government.
On entering Downing Street on Wednesday, Johnson cautioned that if the EU refused to negotiate then he would take Britain out on Oct. 31 without a deal, a step that would send shock waves through the world economy.
In an indication of business concerns about a disorderly exit from the EU, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said a no-deal Brexit was an existential threat to the British car industry and would risk output.
Johnson spiced his pitch to the EU on Thursday by bluntly stating that one of the most hotly contested elements of the Brexit divorce agreement - the Irish border backstop - would have to be struck out if there was to be an orderly exit.
Ireland’s second most powerful politician, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, said Johnson’s comments were “very unhelpful” and warned that the new British leader was not going to get a deal with such an approach.
“He seems to have made a deliberate decision to set Britain on a collision course with the European Union and with Ireland in relation to the Brexit negotiations,” Coveney told reporters in Belfast after meeting Julian Smith, Britain’s Northern Ireland minister.
Smith later said he did not think a collision was looming.
“We need to find solutions particularly for the issue of the border, but the prime minister was very, very clear to his cabinet yesterday that he wants to get a deal done,” he said.
Further illustrating the delicate issues at stake, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said a British EU exit without a deal would raise the question of planning for a possible future unification of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a telephone conversation with Johnson on Friday and he has accepted her invitation to visit Berlin. “He said the only solution that would allow us to make progress on a deal is to abolish the backstop,” a spokesman for Johnson said of the call.
The stance from Berlin was frank.
“My message to the new British prime minister is clear: ‘Boris, the election campaign is over. Calm yourself down. We should be fair with each other’,” Germany’s Europe Minister, Michael Roth, told ZDF television.
“What do not help are new provocations. Instead, dialogue - one must be able to expect that from the leader of a friendly nation, one that is still a member of the European Union.”
Ireland is crucial to any Brexit solution.
Though Ireland is only about an eighth of the size of the United Kingdom’s $2.8 trillion economy, Dublin is backed by the rest of the European Union whose economy - minus the United Kingdom - is worth $15.9 trillion.
While Ireland would be very badly affected by a no-deal Brexit, the relative importance of Ireland in the negotiations up-ends almost a thousand years of history in which Dublin has traditionally had a much weaker hand than London.
And the 500 km (300 mile) land border between Ireland and Britain’s province of Northern Ireland has always been the biggest stumbling block for an orderly Brexit.
Johnson told the British parliament on Thursday he wanted to abolish the backstop, an insurance policy designed to prevent the return of border controls ended by the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
The Withdrawal Agreement that former Prime Minister Theresa May struck in November with the EU says the United Kingdom will remain in a customs union “unless and until” alternative arrangements are found to avoid a hard border.
But many British lawmakers oppose the prospect of being bound to EU rules and customs duties that would prevent Britain doing its own trade deals and leave it overseen by EU judges.
The EU says it will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement or the backstop protocol within it, but could rework the Political Declaration setting out post-Brexit trade terms that may offer a clearer way of avoiding the backstop.
“The approach that the British prime minister seems to now be taking is not going to be the basis of an agreement, and that’s worrying for everybody,” Coveney said.
Additional reporting by David Milliken, Alistair Smout, Costas Pitas and William James in London; Paul Carrel, Tassilo Hummel and Riham Alkousaa in Berlin; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne