(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson dropped his trademark optimism over his ability to negotiate a new Brexit deal with the European Union, warning people not to “hold their breath” over the prospect of a quick breakthrough.
“I want to caution everybody, OK? Because this is not going to be a cinch, this is not going to be easy. We will have to work very hard to get this thing done,” Johnson said in televised comments in Devon, southwest England on Friday.
The clear shift in tone follows meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and France’s President Emmanuel Macron in Paris this week. Both expressed skepticism a breakthrough could be found, with Johnson calling for the EU to reopen the Brexit deal negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May, which took 19 months to agree but was rejected three times by Parliament.
Johnson is already looking to the U.K.’s post-Brexit future -- he and U.S. President Donald Trump are due to discuss a free-trade deal over breakfast at the Group of Seven summit on Sunday. He has promised to leave the EU “do or die” on Oct. 31 and without a deal unless the bloc agrees to change it.
The sticking point remains the same as it was for so many months between May and the EU: what to do about the Irish border, which will become the U.K.’s new land frontier with the bloc after it leaves.
Johnson is demanding the EU scrap the so-called backstop, a fallback mechanism designed to keep the Irish border free of checks. That’s seen as crucial for ensuring that the peace process in Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., is not jeopardized. But the provision is hated by Brexiteers because it would keep the U.K. tied to many of the EU’s customs and trading rules.
The problem for Johnson is the EU doesn’t believe his technology-based solutions to avoid customs and border checks offer a realistic alternative to the backstop. And while Merkel and Macron were both polite and offered Johnson some encouraging words, they were also clear they were not prepared to change the fundamentals of the Brexit deal.
On Friday, the U.K. leader repeated his view that there were “lots of ways” to achieve a frictionless border. “But to persuade our EU friends and partners, who are very, very, very hard over against it, will take some time,” he said.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said in a tweet Friday the bloc was ready to analyze U.K. proposals “that are realistic, operational & compatible with our principles.”
Officials on both sides have said that unless the impasse is broken, a no-deal Brexit -- without a transition period to shield the economy and businesses from the potential turmoil that could follow -- is the most likely scenario.
Johnson said he was “very confident” the U.K. “will be OK” in the event of a no-deal Brexit because of the preparations the government is making. Even so, he said he’s not giving up on negotiations, calling the “mood music” during his European trip “very good,” and reiterated his expectation that any compromise would be last-minute, or “on the steps of the court.”
“They could see that we want a deal, they can see the problems with the backstop,” he said.
Johnson will have another chance to persuade both Macron and Merkel at the Group of Seven meeting in Biarritz, France, which starts Saturday. He’ll also meet European Council President Donald Tusk.
But the British prime minister’s focus will be divided in France. Though he needs a revised Brexit agreement from European leaders, he’ll also try to demonstrate to the leaders of the U.S., Canada and Japan that his post-Brexit vision is an outward-looking U.K. eager to strike new trade deals.
The government holds a U.S. free-trade agreement in particular as one of the great prizes of Brexit. It won’t be straightforward; the U.K. is protective of British standards on things like animal welfare and hygiene, and doesn’t want to open up the National Health Service to U.S. companies -- a likely demand.
Both Johnson and Trump are committed “to starting negotiations as soon as possible,” the prime minister’s office said Friday. “Of course, we want to move quickly, but we want to get the right deal that works for both sides.”
At the summit, Johnson’s core message will be to show that despite his resolve to take the U.K. out of the union with its closest trading partners, the U.K. won’t become inward-looking, according to his office.
“We will be an energetic partner on the world stage,” Johnson said ahead of his trip to France.
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