Boris Johnson’s Foray Into Brexit Talks Ends in Retreat From Protests

Thomas Penny, Stephanie Bodoni and Jonathan Stearns
Boris Johnson’s Foray Into Brexit Talks Ends in Retreat From Protests

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson said he is optimistic about reaching a deal with the European Union even though a day of Brexit talks descended into disarray as he canceled a news conference after it was ambushed by protesters.

A noisy demonstration, in which protesters could be heard shouting “dirty liar” as music blared, prompted Johnson’s team to ask their hosts in Luxembourg to move the presser indoors -- but the request was denied.

Johnson departed the chaotic scene, leaving behind an empty lectern, while Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, went on to address the media alone, laying into his British guest and branding Brexit a “nightmare.”

It was an ignominious end to a day that started with the British leader expressing hope for a deal. The U.K. is due to exit the EU on Oct. 31, and Johnson has said he is determined to leave the bloc on time, even if that means doing so with no divorce agreement in place.

Snails or Sorbet?

Johnson traveled to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for his first face-to-face talks since becoming prime minister. The two men met for lunch, though even the menu was contentious. British officials had earlier suggested the meal would include snails, salmon and cheese, whereas in fact it consisted of chicken, pollock and sorbet.

While the atmosphere around the table was friendly, a breakthrough was no closer to being reached, one EU official said.

“The big picture is that the commission would like to do a deal,” Johnson told the BBC in an interview after the talks with Juncker. The EU president is “highly intelligent” and wants a deal, the premier said. “But clearly it’s going to take some work.”

Juncker’s team said after the meeting that the U.K. has still not presented any proposals and it is their “responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions” to allow the free flow of goods between the Republic of Ireland, which is in the bloc, and Northern Ireland, which is in the U.K.

No Show

Johnson, whose office said talks between the two sides will now take place every day, said he is offering alternative arrangements for the Irish border, the main sticking point in talks with the bloc, though he refused to give specifics. “There’s a limit to how much the details benefit from publicity before we’ve actually done the deal,” he said.

Why Johnson’s Brexit Path Can’t Avoid Irish Border: QuickTake

It was after talks with Luxembourg’s prime minister that Johnson’s day went awry. He decided it would be better to avoid the confrontational scenes and left Bettel standing next to Johnson’s empty podium, denouncing the “mess” of Brexit to a cheering crowd of protesters.

“There are no concrete proposals at the moment on the table,” said Bettel, who had talked with the EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, before meeting with Johnson. “We need written proposals,” he said, before telling the absent Johnson to “stop speaking and act.”

‘Going to Happen’

Johnson’s office asked for the news conference to be moved inside so it wouldn’t be drowned out by the protesters, but Bettel’s office refused, according to U.K. officials speaking on condition of anonymity.

With patience running out in Europe, and his room to compromise strictly limited, Johnson is doubling down on his plan to take the U.K. out of the bloc with no deal at all on Oct. 31.

Johnson’s officials have indicated he will defy a new law designed to force him to seek a delay to Brexit rather than allow a no-deal split next month. Instead, they are preparing to take their fight to court to “test” the new law.

In his interview with the BBC, the prime minister repeatedly refused to rule out battling through the courts in order to ensure the U.K. leaves the EU on time.

Johnson said he would not breach the law but didn’t go into detail of how he would get around a vote by Parliament requiring him to ask the EU for an extension on Oct. 19 if he can’t reach a new agreement by then.

“Our first priority, if I may say so, just to try and look on the bright side for a second or two, is to come out with a deal,” Johnson said.

Earlier in the day, Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne hadn’t shared his British counterpart’s optimism. In an interview with CNBC, he said the EU must accept that a no-deal Brexit is “going to happen.”

(Updates with Finnish prime minister in final paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Thomas Penny in London at tpenny@bloomberg.net;Stephanie Bodoni in Luxembourg at sbodoni@bloomberg.net;Jonathan Stearns in Luxembourg at jstearns2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Robert Jameson

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