EU negotiator Barnier 'not optimistic' about preventing no-deal Brexit

Emmanuel Dunand, AFP | Chief EU negotiator for Brexit, Michel Barnier addresses a press conference at the Euroepan Commission in Brussels on March 19, 2019.

The European Union will not change the divorce deal agreed with Britain, EU negotiator Michel Barnier said in an interview published Sunday as MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit prepared for a showdown week.


Barnier insisted the agreement's most contentious element, a so-called backstop mechanism to keep the Northern Irish border open in all post-Brexit circumstances, was "the maximum amount of flexibility that the EU can offer".

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he added that the provision must remain part of any deal but given British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's hostility to it he was "not optimistic" of avoiding Britain crashing out of the European Union on October 31.

Johnson, who took power in July calling for the backstop to be totally scrapped, has insisted the country will depart the bloc under any circumstances on the latest delayed deadline in order to honour the 2016 referendum when 52 percent of Britons voted to leave.

"There's a good chance we'll get a deal and there's a good chance that we won't," he told the Sunday Times, claiming "signs of progress" in recent meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Brexit and the Irish border problem

However, Johnson now faces concerted opposition by MPs from across the political spectrum, who have vowed to introduce legislation blocking a no-deal exit as soon as they return to parliament from a six-week summer recess on Tuesday.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, has said he could also table a no-confidence vote in Johnson's government -- which has a majority of just one -- if required to stop no deal.

'An elective dictatorship'

Corbyn will convene his top team in Salford in northern England on Monday "to finalise our plans to stop the disaster of no deal ahead of the return of parliament".

"We are working with other parties to do everything necessary to pull our country back from the brink," he said ahead of the meeting.

Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said earlier Sunday the proposed law would be "simple" and "require an extension" to Britain's departure date.

Johnson, who invited Conservative whips and officials to the leader's country retreat Chequers late Sunday to strategise, is considering advising the Queen not to give royal assent to any bill passed by the rebels, according to reports.

Arch-Brexiteer minister Michael Gove fuelled speculation about the tactic when asked Sunday if the government would accept such a law.

"Let's see what the legislation says," he told the BBC.

Labour's finance spokesman John McDonnell branded the potential ploy "startling" and "beyond anything we've ever seen".

"Johnson government is becoming an elective dictatorship," he said on Twitter.

The prime minister reportedly may also throw Conservative lawmakers who vote against his government out of the parliamentary party.

Information blitz

Johnson stoked controversy and protests Saturday across Britain after announcing Wednesday he had instructed Queen Elizabeth II to suspend parliament in the final weeks before Brexit.

The move was widely seen as a bid to limit the time his opponents will have to thwart a no-deal departure from the EU.

Thousands took to the streets of towns and cities across the country to decry the move to close parliament -- known as proroguing -- from mid-September until October 14.

Organisers using the slogan #StopTheCoup claimed as many as 100,000 people turned out in London.

The decision to suspend parliament also sparked several legal challenges that will be heard this week.

A Scottish judge is expected to consider one Tuesday and a London court will hear another review -- supported by former Conservative prime minister and staunch Brexit opponent John Major -- on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the government continues to prepare for a possible no-deal Brexit, launching a £140 million public information campaign Sunday aimed at individuals, businesses and EU citizens.

Gove, head of no-deal preparations, vowed there would be no shortages of fresh food but conceded some prices could rise.

He also insisted that freedom of movement for EU nationals would end on October 31, despite a Sunday Times report that the plan had been postponed on the advice of lawyers.


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