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France reiterates EU rejection of Johnson’s Brexit policy

Ludovic Marin, AFP | French state minister for European Affairs Amelie de Montchalin at the Elysée presidential palace, Paris, July 10, 2019.

France on Friday reiterated the EU’s rejection of an aggressive push by Boris Johnson to rewrite the Brexit agreement. But Paris is ready to "work with" the new British prime minister, said a senior French official.

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France wants to “get past the stage” of negotiating the Brexit agreement and would like to “calmly” negotiate Britain’s future relationship with the EU, said France’s state minister for European affairs Amelie de Montchalin.

Her comments came a day after French President Emmanuel Macron invited the new UK prime minister to Paris during a phone conversation late Thursday to congratulate Johnson on becoming Britain’s new head of government.

Macron has emerged as one of the EU leaders most willing to see Britain leave soon, without a deal if it chooses, so as not to threaten EU stability and unity.

Separately from Macron's invitation, Johnson is expected to go to France in a month to attend a G7 summit in the oceanside city of Biarritz on August 24-26.

EU rejects Johnson’s ‘unacceptable’ positions

Macron’s invitation came shortly the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned the bloc’s member states that Johnson was trying to divide them by amping up the threat of a damaging "no-deal" divorce.

In an email to member states seen by AFP, Barnier warned that Johnson's "rather combative" demand -- delivered in a House of Commons speech Thursday -- that Brussels "rethink" its opposition to re-opening the current deal was "unacceptable".

"PM Johnson has stated that if an agreement is to be reached it goes by way of eliminating the backstop," Barnier wrote, referring to a clause of the current deal that would keep the Irish border open under all scenarios.

"This is of course unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European Council," he wrote. The European Council represents the 28 leaders of EU member states.

Barnier advised EU leaders, "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."

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, echoed this message in his first phone call with Johnson since he took over the prime minister’s post.

"President Juncker listened to what Prime Minister Johnson had to say, reiterating the EU's position that the Withdrawal Agreement is the best and only agreement possible -- in line with the European Council guidelines," Juncker's spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said.

EU leaders have given Brussels no mandate to renegotiate the deal, said Juncker.

Johnson’s ‘backstop’ remarks ‘unhelpful’ says Ireland

Johnson’s statements to the House of Commons promising to get “rid” of the Irish border “backstop” sparked a sharp rebuke Friday from the Irish foreign minister.

"The statements of the British prime minister yesterday in the House of Commons were very unhelpful,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told reporters. "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."

The backstop is a key component of the deal negotiated by former British PM Theresa May which covers the tricky issue of the border between the British territory of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south. It guarantees a frictionless border until a solution is negotiated between the UK and the EU.

Johnson vows to get 'rid' of Irish backstop

The EU maintains the backstop is essential for any transition deal and a precondition for talks on a longer-term trade agreement.

Many Brexit supporters dislike the backstop -- which would require Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom as a whole to stay in the EU’s customs union -- as it would make it hard for Britain to negotiate free trade deals with other countries.

EU notes UK parliament’s ‘strong reactions’

Earlier, in a pugnacious parliamentary debut as leader, Johnson had urged the European Union to "rethink" its opposition to re-opening the current deal.

"If they do not, we will of course have to leave the EU without an agreement," he declared, vowing to "turbo-charge" preparations ahead of the latest deadline of October 31.

In his letter, Barnier noted the domestic British opposition to Johnson's policy, and appeared to suggest that it might provide an opening for EU capitals to exploit.

"I note also the many strong reactions to the speech in the House of Commons," Barnier wrote.

"In this context we must follow carefully the further political and economic reactions and developments in the UK following this speech."

The exchanges came a day after Johnson purged more than half the ministers in May's team and installed what some have described as the most right-wing British government in decades.

The 55-year-old has assembled a team of social conservatives and Brexit hardliners who argue that leaving the EU after 46 years without an agreement will be less painful than economists warn.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and Reuters)

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