British PM "cautious" ahead of Brexit talks with EU's Juncker

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was feeling "cautious" as he went into talks on a Brexit deal with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday, as rhetoric from both men over the weekend suggested their positions remain far apart.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker. / Via REUTERS

Reuters | Foo Yun Chee and Elizabeth Piper

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Leer en español: Boris Johnson "cauteloso" antes de las conversaciones del Brexit

With less than seven weeks until Britain is due to leave the European Union, Johnson has yet to reach an agreement with Brussels on how to manage the separation between the world's fifth-largest economy and its biggest trading partner.

He said on Sunday he was still aiming for a deal before the Oct. 31 divorce date and that the next few days would be vital.

"I believe passionately that we can do it, and I believe that such an agreement is in the interests not just of the UK but also of our European friends," Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The future of the land border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland is the central issue of disagreement both between Johnson and the EU, and between him and British lawmakers. Britain's parliament three times rejected a deal negotiated by his predecessor Theresa May which included the so-called backstop mechanism to keep the seamless Irish border open.

Johnson told reporters he was feeling "cautious" as he went into a Luxembourg restaurant with Juncker, where he was expected to build his case for a revised deal that he hopes will be agreed at an EU leaders' summit on Oct. 17-18.

Also read: Key weeks are coming for trade war and Brexit

A UK government source said the two leaders, who have not met since Johnson became prime minister in July, would dine on snails, salmon, and cheese.

The website of the Bouquet Garni restaurant, an 18th-century building of bare stone walls and low ceilings in the medieval heart of Luxembourg, has snails and salmon on a 34-euro ($38) set-lunch menu.

Britain's Brexit minister, Stephen Barclay, and the EU's Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, joined the lunch.

About 20 Britons, mostly retirees resident in Luxembourg, held banners outside the restaurant to protest against Johnson.

"Despite what he is saying about working flat out on a deal, he is determined that the UK leave the EU on the 31st of October without a deal and he doesn’t give a damn about the consequences for the country as a whole. Because he is not going to suffer," said Sue Dunlop, 65, a retired translator at the Commission and European Parliament. "It is outrageous."

"TIME IS RUNNING OUT"

While Johnson and his ministers have in recent days talked up progress in negotiations with Brussels, the EU side has consistently sounded less optimistic, emphasizing that Britain must come up with new ideas.

In an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio on Sunday, Juncker said there was no possibility of reopening the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by May.

"I believe we need to maintain a decent relationship with Britain, and I am not optimistic when it comes to finding alternative arrangements that will allow us to limit the Irish backstop," Juncker said.

"We do not know what the British want in detail, precisely and exactly, and we are still waiting for alternative proposals. I hope we can get it, but time is running out."

Johnson's government has yet to publicly announce new proposals on how to solve the Northern Irish border issue. It insists that the backstop, an insurance policy to prevent a return to a hard border, is unacceptable.

Johnson has pledged to leave the EU with or without a deal on Oct. 31, even though British lawmakers have passed a law that would force him to request a delay beyond that date if he is unable to reach a deal with the EU.

"There are many in the UK who view a no-deal positively, without considering the implications - both on the islands and on the continent," Juncker said. "It would be unholy chaos and we would need years to put things back in order."

The British government has stepped up preparations to mitigate possible food, fuel and medicine shortages in case of a no-deal exit.

Also read: Brexit in chaos after court rules PM's suspension of parliament was unlawful

"We want a deal. This cannot include the backstop," the British government source said, adding that Johnson would make clear to Juncker that even if the EU offers him an extension of the Brexit deadline beyond Oct. 31 he will reject it.

However, Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage told Reuters he expected a departure delay because he believed that, although the political elite in London was plotting with the EU to betray the 2016 referendum vote to leave, parliament would reject any last-minute deal.

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