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Johnson steps up 'no-deal' Brexit option

REUTERS | British PM Boris Johnson delivers his first speech to parliament, London, July 25, 2019.

In his first speech as prime minister to parliament Thursday, Boris Johnson described the terms of the current draft Brexit deal as "unacceptable" and called on Brussels to rethink its refusal to renegotiate.

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Speaking to members of the House of Commons, Johnson said his government’s “mission” was to “deliver Brexit on the 31st of October for the purpose of uniting and re-energising our great United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on earth".

Elaborating on his central theme of getting the UK out of the EU by the October 31 deadline, Johnson said he would “prefer us to leave the EU with a deal -- I would much prefer it. I believe that it is possible even at this late stage and I will work flat out to make it happen," he said.

But he added: "The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by my predecessor has been three times rejected by this house. Its terms are unacceptable to this parliament and to this country."

Britain was originally supposed to leave the EU on March 29, but the deadline was moved to October 31 after MPs rejected ex-prime minister Theresa May's withdrawal deal three times.

Johnson was speaking to parliament a day after taking over as prime minister from May following a leadership contest in the governing Conservative party.

‘Combative’ speech

The new prime minister spiced his pitch to the EU by bluntly stating that one of the most hotly contested elements of the Brexit divorce agreement would have to be struck out if there was to be an orderly exit.

His bet is that the threat of the economic disruption that a "no-deal" Brexit would cause will convince the EU's biggest powers – Germany and France – to agree to revise the divorce deal that May agreed last November.

Johnson told parliament he would not accept the Irish backstop, an insurance policy designed to prevent the return of a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland by provisionally keeping Britain in a customs union with the EU.

"It must be clearly understood that the way to the deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop," he told parliament.

However, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier quickly rejected that condition.

"As suggested by his rather combative speech, we have to be ready for a situation where he gives priority to the planning for 'no deal', partly to heap pressure on the unity of the EU27," Barnier said in a note sent to EU member states.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also warned Johnson in a phone call that the deal the EU struck with May last year was "the best and only" one, an EU spokeswoman said.

‘No ifs, no buts’

Earlier Thursday, Johnson held his first Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, where he reminded his team about the “momentous task ahead of us, at a pivotal moment in our country's history. We are now committed, all of us, to leaving the European Union on October 31 or indeed earlier - no ifs, no buts.”

On Wednesday, Johnson named Brexit hardliners to top posts, including Priti Patel as Home Minister, the British equivalent of an interior minister.

His decision to get the "Vote Leave" campaign team back together emphasises how determined he is to take Britain out of the European Union on October 31, even without an agreement with Brussels.

But the reshuffle caused alarm among MPs who oppose his "no deal" stance, while some new appointments sparked speculation he is gearing up for an election if parliament tries to stop him.

"Brexiteers are accused of not taking responsibility. After this shuffle, they can't be," wrote Paul Goodman, editor of Tory grassroots website ConservativeHome.

He added: "These are all general election-ready, Vote Leave veterans."

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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