Emmanuel Macron has described the Irish backstop as “indispensable” to a Brexit deal but backed the idea of giving Boris Johnson 30 days to find a solution as he met the British prime minister in Paris on Thursday.
The French president told Johnson that he must present concrete proposals for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU within a month, backing a call by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, for a swift move by London to present initiatives.
Any new proposals to deal with the issue of the Northern Ireland border should fit into the existing framework withdrawal agreement already negotiated, he said.
Johnson has repeatedly said that the backstop – an insurance plan to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland – must go in order to avoid a no-deal exit on 31 October. He argues that it could leave the UK tied to the EU indefinitely.
But Macron said that the backstop was both an indispensable guarantee for the stability of Ireland and means of protecting the integrity of the European single market, and that any new UK ideas had to respect that.
Johnson arrived at the Élysée Palace in a Range Rover decorated with UK flags. Macron is keenly aware of the prime minister’s long track record of French-bashing for a domestic audience, but both men were at pains to show their close working relationship. Johnson repeatedly called Macron “Emmanuel”, and smiled at him, only shrugging and grimacing slightly and reaching into his jacket for a pen to amend his speech as he stood listening to Macron say the Irish backstop was an “essential guarantee”.
Macron said it was not possible to wait until the last minute to find a solution. He said the EU’s negotiator, Michel Barnier, could be involved in finding an answer “without totally reshuffling the withdrawal agreement”.
“We should all together be able to find something smart within 30 days if there is goodwill on both sides,” he said.
Macron was careful to say that if no concrete solution based on the current withdrawal agreement were found in the coming month, it would be the UK’s sole responsibility. “It would mean that the problem is deeper, more political – a British political problem.” At that point “there will be a political choice to be made by the prime minister, it won’t fall to us”.
Macron appeared to have the upper hand as he smiled warmly while telling Johnson: “On Brexit my position is clear and I know how much that occupies your days and your nights.”
This appeared to be a reference to Downing Street rushing to respond on Wednesday night to Macron’s comments to reporters in Paris that Johnson’s written request to renegotiate the UK’s exit and scrap the backstop was “not an option”.
Macron was even more tactile than usual with a foreign leader, repeatedly patting Johnson on the back and shoulder.
“I’ve always been portrayed as the toughest in the group,” Macron grinned. Political commentators in France suspect Johnson of wanting to frame France as the bad cop to blame for any no deal. Macron is determined to avoid taking any blame for what he calls the UK’s internal political crisis over Brexit.
Macron said he believed the British people’s sovereign decision must be carried out, warning against “democracies suffering lack of efficiency and lack of clarity”.
He reminded Johnson that he stood firmly together with Merkel with a united position and that it was not up to any one single EU member state to negotiate.
Johnson tried to strike a positive note, saying that he admired the “can-do spirit” expressed by Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday.
He said: “Let’s get Brexit done, let’s get it done sensibly and pragmatically and in the interests of both sides and let’s not wait until 31 October. Let’s get on now in deepening and intensifying the friendship and partnership between us,.
“When you look at the border with Northern Ireland … under no circumstances will the UK government be instituting, imposing checks or controls of any kind at that border.
“We think there are ways of protecting the integrity of the single market and allowing the UK to exit from the EU, all and entire and perfect as it were.”