French President Emmanuel Macron has told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson there was not enough time in the month ahead to negotiate a new Brexit withdrawal agreement outlining the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Macron was hosting Johnson in Paris on Thursday ahead of this weekend’s G7 summit in Biarritz, a resort town in France’s south.
Johnson arrived in the French capital from Berlin, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday challenged Britain to come up with alternatives to the Irish border backstop within 30 days – a challenge which Johnson readily accepted.
Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on October 31.
“What Chancellor Merkel said yesterday, and which is in line with the substance of our talks, is that we need visibility in 30 days,” Macron told reporters outside the Elysee Palace.
“Nobody is going to wait until October 31 without trying to find a good solution … We will make the most of this time we have.”
But Macron also cautioned Britain from getting its collective hopes up.
“We will not find a new withdrawal agreement in 30 days that will be very different from the existing one,” he said, standing alongside Johnson.
What is the ‘backstop’?
At the heart of the problem is what is known as the Irish “backstop”. It is a contingency plan in the withdrawal agreement negotiated by the European Commission and the administration of Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, to avoid any hard border being drawn up again on the island of Ireland.
It states that should the United Kingdom and EU fail to reach a comprehensive trade agreement after Brexit, then Northern Ireland would remain in regulatory alignment – following established standards for health, safety, food and so forth – with the EU until another solution becomes apparent.
This has proven unpopular in the UK, as it means that either the rest of the UK must also remain in alignment with the EU, therefore being bound to it without any say in it, or Northern Ireland would be set aside from the rest of the UK, being treated much like the Republic of Ireland, which critics say would harm the UK’s national sovereignty.
Macron said the “two goals” the EU has with the Irish backstop are maintaining the integrity of the EU single market and upholding the Good Friday Agreement.
“The Irish backstop, as we call it, is a point that has been negotiated in the context of the geography of Ireland and the past political situation.
“So it is an important element that allows us first of all to guarantee the stability in Ireland and also the integrity of the single market.”
Johnson again declined to provide details of how exactly an invisible border between a post-Brexit Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland would work, but directed attention to a recent report coauthored by Greg Hands, a British trade minister, which suggested checks should take place away from the border itself, while acknowledging it would take three years to set up the many layers of arrangements necessary.
“Whatever happens with Brexit, it is our joint ambition, the UK and France, that we should deepen and intensify our economic interpenetration,” said Johnson.