BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) - The European Union told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson he must make significant concessions if he wants to strike a last-minute Brexit deal.
As the clock ticks down to the Oct. 31 departure date, Brexit descended into a public row between London and Brussels this week as both sides position for another delay followed by an election in Britain or an acrimonious divorce.
After a Downing Street source said a Brexit deal was essentially impossible because German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made unacceptable demands, the EU accused Johnson of playing a “stupid blame game”.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said striking a Brexit deal ahead of Oct. 31 would be “very difficult” and the bloc could not accept Johnson’s proposals. He added that a deal was “still possible.”
“To put things frankly, we are not really in a position to be able to find agreement with the UK,” Barnier told the European Parliament. He said he would be available 24/7 in the coming days to try to strike a deal.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was working for a Brexit deal, which he also said was still possible.
“I don’t accept this blame game that started in London. Personally, I don’t exclude a deal,” Juncker told the European Parliament’s plenary session.
“The risk of a no-deal remains real and basically is going to come down to a decision by the UK government, but will never be the choice — the preferred option — of the European Union.”
The European Union’s two most powerful leaders, Germany’s Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, will meet at the Elysee Palace this Sunday ahead of an Oct. 17-18 EU summit, Macron’s office said.
“I’m still cautiously, cautiously optimistic,” Johnson said.
EU diplomats, though, are skeptical about the chances of a deal. Most expect Johnson to be forced to accept a delay to Brexit - a step that could ultimately lead to either a disorderly exit or the reversal of the entire Brexit endeavor.
“There will be no rabbit-out-of-the-hat solutions,” one EU official told Reuters. “There will be more talks and more political contacts. But, for the time being, there is no breakthrough to be reported.”
Johnson has repeatedly cast the EU summit next week as the last chance for the EU to strike a deal or face the disruption of a no-deal Brexit that would divide the West, threaten the unity of the United Kingdom and roil financial markets.
A week ago, he proposed a possible solution to ensure the border between the British-ruled province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland does not become a backdoor into the EU’s single market and customs union.
Short of an last-minute breakthrough, Johnson will have to decide whether to accept another delay or to go for a no-deal Brexit and get around a law demanding he extend.
In the fevered atmosphere surrounding Brexit where newspaper reports and contradictory tweets can send sterling into gyrations, EU officials denied a report in The Times that the bloc was preparing a major concession to Britain to secure a deal.
“Unfortunately, no bold new offer is coming from the EU side at this stage,” an EU official said.
Britain’s Brexit minister, Steve Barclay, was due to have lunch with EU chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, on Thursday.
Behind the rhetoric, the Brexit finale will ultimately be decided by Merkel, Macron, Johnson, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar - all of whom say they want an orderly exit.
Johnson and Varadkar are due to meet on Thursday.
With chances of a deal receding, focus was turning back to British domestic politics, where Johnson is under intense pressure from opponents to delay Brexit.
Anti-Brexit campaigners claimed victory after Scotland’s highest court decided on Wednesday to wait before ruling whether to force Johnson to seek a delay to Britain’s EU divorce date if he has not struck a deal in the next 10 days.
Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellanEstelle Shirbon, Michael Holden and Elizabeth Piper in London; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Giles Elgood