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Boris Johnson and Jean-Claude Juncker Hold Crucial Brexit Talks

LUXEMBOURG — The first in-person meeting between the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, and the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, ended on Monday with no breakthrough in the fraught talks about how Britain can leave the European Union on Oct. 31 with a plan in place to manage the disruption of the divorce.

The two men shared a “working lunch” over how Britain will extract itself from the bloc, but Mr. Juncker “recalled that it is the U.K.’s responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions,” the European Commission said in a statement afterward. “Such proposals have not yet been made.”

Mr. Johnson was booed by a few dozen protesters who chanted, “Tell the truth, stop the coup” as he traveled a couple of hundred meters to a meeting with Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg. He departed without speaking to the news media as scheduled, leaving Mr. Bettel to take questions from reporters on his own.

The leaders had drawn battle lines before their meeting that made it clear there was still a long way to go to reach a consensus, and time is running increasingly short to reach a deal on the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union.

There have been few outward signs of progress to suggest that the two sides will find a way to sort out the thorniest of issues — the question of how to handle the Irish border in a post-Brexit Europe — and European negotiators are still waiting for the British government to present a new plan.

“We do not know what the British want in detail, precisely and accurately, and we are still waiting for alternative proposals,” Mr. Juncker said on German public radio on Sunday. Brexit, he said, was a “continental tragedy.”

On the British side, there were mixed signals. Before the meetings on Monday, a British official said that progress was being made, but Mr. Johnson also chose some unexpected imagery to demonstrate that he believes Britain would be just fine if it left the European Union on Oct. 31 without a deal.

Speaking to the Mail on Sunday, Mr. Johnson said that he would ignore Parliament and refuse to seek an extension if there is no agreement. He then drove the point home by comparing his country to a famous comic book character known for turning big and green when angry.

“The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets,” Mr. Johnson told the Mail on Sunday. “Hulk always escaped, no matter how tightly bound in he seemed to be — and that is the case for this country. We will come out on October 31 and we will get it done.”

Mr. Johnson’s comments were quickly rebutted by, among others, Mark Ruffalo, the actor who played the Hulk in a series of movies for over a decade.

“Boris Johnson forgets that the Hulk only fights for the good of the whole,” Mr. Ruffalo wrote on Twitter. “Mad and strong can also be dense and destructive. The Hulk works best when he is in unison with a team, and is a disaster when he is alone.”

At stake are the terms under which Britain will leave — or crash out of — the European Union. Mr. Johnson has said that he will not carry out a deal negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May, and he has homed in on the issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland, which is a European Union member, and Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain.

Neither side wants to see the return of a hard border between the two, which would be disruptive to trade and to Ireland’s economy. It would also represent a step back for the peace process that has brought stability to the island. To ensure that the border remains open, European Union officials have been insisting on what is commonly known as a “backstop,” an insurance mechanism to ensure that goods continue to flow freely.

Mr. Johnson has rejected such an approach, but European Union officials say that he has not put forward a credible alternative, despite the bloc’s negotiators signaling that they are open to new ideas as long as the border remains “soft” — namely free of physical checks for goods or animals being transferred between the two sides.

There have been signs that there is a way out: Mr. Johnson is weighing a proposal that would put parts of the Northern Ireland economy into an “all-Ireland” zone. That would presumably subject Northern Ireland to European Union rules and standards, even as it remains a part of the United Kingdom, while preserving the open border.

Critics say, however, that this would leave Northern Ireland as a de facto part of the European Union and its free-trade area, and in the process fragment the United Kingdom.

The British secretary of state for Brexit, Stephen Barclay, and the chief Brexit negotiator for the European Commission, Michel Barnier, were scheduled to meet in parallel to the leaders’ lunch.

But the view from the British side has been that, while a deal is desirable, it’s not essential in order to follow through on Brexit, with Mr. Johnson saying he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than have another extension.

For the European Union, a no-deal Brexit is seen as an avoidable train wreck, a disaster scenario that could cause irreparable damage and cost billions to both Britain and the bloc.

The European Union’s economy is in a fragile state, while a no-deal Brexit would likely cause all kinds of problems for Britain, where the government’s own scenarios have warned of shortages of food and medicine, problems for manufacturing, and possibly even civil unrest.

“There are many in the U.K. who are in favor of a no-deal, without considering what the implications — both on the islands and on the Continent — would be,” Mr. Juncker told German radio.

“It would be a mess, and we will need years to get things right again,” he added, before appealing to British sense of patriotism to avert it. “If you love your country — I assume that there are still patriots in the U.K. — you do not want to wish your country such a fate.”

Mr. Juncker and Mr. Johnson have spoken twice on the phone since Mr. Johnson became prime minister, but had not met face-to-face. Both are known for having big personalities and charisma, especially in closed-door settings where their traditional brand of relationship politics has currency.

Source: NYT > World News

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