(Recasts with Johnson’s riposte to Tusk)
By John Chalmers and William James
BIARRITZ, France, Aug 24 (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Council head Donald Tusk sparred on Saturday over who would be to blame should Britain leave the EU on Oct. 31 without a divorce deal in place.
Tusk told reporters in Biarritz he would be willing to hear ideas from Johnson on how to avoid a no-deal Brexit when the two men meet on Sunday on the sidelines of a G7 summit in the French seaside resort. But he added he would not work with Britain on an exit from the EU without a withdrawal agreement. “I still hope that PM Johnson will not like to go down in history as Mr No Deal,” said Tusk, who leads the political direction of the 28-nation European Union.
Johnson later retorted that it would be Tusk himself who would carry the mantle if Britain could not secure a new withdrawal agreement.
“I would say to our friends in the EU if they don’t want a no deal Brexit then we’ve got to get rid of the backstop from the treaty. If Donald Tusk doesn’t want to go down as Mr No Deal then I hope that point will be borne in mind by him too,” Johnson told reporters on his flight to France.
Three years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, the outcome of the tortuous Brexit crisis remains unclear, with options ranging from an acrimonious rupture on Oct. 31 to a smooth, amicable exit or even another referendum.
The bloc and its leaders have repeatedly refused to reopen a Withdrawal Agreement, which includes a protocol on an Irish border insurance policy that then-prime minister Theresa May agreed in November.
Johnson is hoping that the threat of a disorderly ‘no-deal’ exit will convince the EU to grant him the divorce deal he wants. However, on his first foreign trip as prime minister last week, the response from EU heavyweights Germany and France was firm: the Withdrawal Agreement will not be changed much.
Brexit is expected to come up at a meeting of the leaders of the European G7 nations - France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom - and Tusk later on Saturday.
Johnson’s key demand is that the EU remove the Irish border backstop, which would keep the United Kingdom in a customs union with the EU unless a better solution is found to keep open Ireland’s 500-km (300-mile) land border with the British province of Northern Ireland.
He has vowed to lead the United Kingdom out of the EU on Oct. 31 with or without a deal.
Reporting by John Chalmers, William James and Richard Lough Writing by John Chalmers Editing by Richard Lough and Andrew Heavens