UK Prime Minister frontrunner clashes with EU

Boris Johnson's comments have caused concern among EU leaders

EU leaders have reiterated that the Brexit withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation as the Conservative leadership favourite – and thus new prime minister - demands the Irish backstop be renegotiated or the estimated £35-39billion  ‘divorce bill’ will not be paid.

Thought to be a likely contender for PM as the race to replace Theresa May gets under way, former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson looks set to clash with the EU if elected, predicted to make a no-deal Brexit more likely.

It comes as another contender former Brexit Minister Dominic Raab has also said he is willing to face no-deal if changes are not made.

“I always thought it was extraordinary that we should agree to write that entire cheque before having a final deal. In getting a good deal, money is a great solvent and a great lubricant,” Mr Johnson told the Sunday Times.

He added: “I think our friends and partners need to understand that the money is going to be retained until such time as we have greater clarity about the way forward.”

He said he wanted to reopen talks on the 'backstop' and also obtain "greater clarity" on the details of the EU and UK's future trading relationship.

The European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said on Facebook: “Boris Johnson threatens not to pay the Brexit bill. This would not only hurt the UK’s credibility as an international partner, but it is absolutely unacceptable and contradicts what almost every lawyer in the UK thinks about it.”

Mr Verhofstadt quoted a British law professor as having said that “whether we leave the EU with or without a deal, the UK bears those liabilities and commitments, and resultant financial obligations, and legally is required to execute them”.

The ‘divorce bill’ (officially the ‘financial settlement’) concerns payments that the UK had agreed to make into the current EU budget until the end of 2020 (which also coincides with the negotiated transition period) as well as other matters such as liabilities to pay for pensions of British EU civil servants. However it is in fact expected that it would be paid over decades rather than consisting of a single ‘cheque’.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has reiterated that the so-called Irish backstop, an integral part of the withdrawal agreement (WA), is not on the table.

The backstop, which is in a format requested by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, refers to plans for the UK to stay closely aligned to EU customs rules indefinitely so as to avoid a hard border having to be put in place, however with the proviso that the UK and EU would aim to find an alternative, preferably before the end of the transition period so that it never has to be applied.

Mr Barnier says the EU stands ready to help the UK work out an alternative arrangement as soon as possible, perhaps involving “technology, drones, invisible borders”, however the deal needs to be signed off first, he said.

Speaking after Mrs May stepped down as Conservative Party leader on Friday Mr Barnier warned that the choices for Britain are to accept the agreement, cancel Brexit, or leave with no deal, and that would not change whoever the new prime minister is.

The deal negotiated by Mrs May is the “only one possible” he said.

The EU is willing to redraft the political declaration on the future relationship which is attached to the WA and which would form a starting point for further negotiations which would take place during the transition period.

However time is ticking down towards the current Brexit deadline of October 31.

EU heads of state are to meet at a European Council summit on June 20-21, then the following one will be October 17-18.

Slovakia’s foreign minister, who was speaking with Mr Barnier at a conference on Friday night, said the EU would only agree to another extension for a general election or second referendum.

Mr Barnier refused to comment on individual Tory leadership candidates, however behind the scenes several papers have reported further concerns from Brussels sources over the prospect of Mr Johnson as prime minister.

They reportedly told The Times that Theresa May was “never given the cold shoulder” and “the question was always ‘what can we do to help’”, however “that will not be the case for a new prime minister when the favourite candidate has a big trust deficit with us”.

His image in Brussels is not helped by the fact he was one of the architects of the Leave campaign and is closely associated with controversial claims about £350 million a week being sent to the EU.

What is more, as Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph in the 1980s-90s he is seen as one of the originators of what the EU calls the ‘Euromyth’ news story – on topics like alleged plans to ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps or British ‘pink sausages’.

According to The Guardian an EU source said the idea of Mr Johnson as prime minister was “probably quite abhorrent to some EU leaders”, he is “not respected in foreign policy circles” and “is seen as part of a wider Trump world and no one wants that”.

Belgian MEP and member of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group Philippe Lamberts said the odds of no-deal were now more than half and would go up again if Mr Johnson won.

Meanwhile another leading candidate Dominic Raab is also not considered to have made a good impression during his four-month stint as the UK’s Brexit Minister.

“He was seen to be working against his prime minister and making things up,” an EU source told The Guardian.

Mr Raab,  launching his leadership bid in London, was however cheered by Conservative Party members yesterday after stating he took an assertive stance with the EU.

“They said I pushed them too hard, they said I told them things that no one else had ever dared; well about time too,” he said.

“The truth is I just made clear we couldn’t accept that backstop and that our future relationship must be based on a best in class free trade agreement, not the cage of a customs union.”

Like Mr Johnson, he said he is willing to “walk away” with no deal, if the EU does not make changes to the backstop plan.

However the British parliament previously passed a resolution refusing no-deal, meaning confrontation with the MPs also looks likely if Mr Johnson or Mr Raab or another hardliner is selected for the job.

The aim is to have a new Conservative leader, therefore new prime minister, in place before the start of the UK parliament’s summer recess, around the end of July. It will reconvene at the start of September but then will once again be in recess in late September for annual party conferences.

The new European Parliament meets for the first time on July 2. New European commissioners are also being appointed this autumn with a new Commission set to take up the reigns in November; there will be new presidents for both the Commission and the European Council.

Last week the government official in charge of delivering ‘frictionless’ Brexit border arrangements, including emergency plans for Ireland in the event of no deal, resigned.

Karen Wheeler, director general of HMRC’s Brexit border delivery group, said earlier this year that there were as yet no ‘technological solutions’ for preventing a hard Irish border and she thought the UK would need a customs union with the EU, plus close alignment to the single market, to maintain completely free movement of goods across the border.

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