Brussels has accused Boris Johnson of starting a “stupid blame game” over Brexit, as talks to avert a no-deal teeter on the brink.
A series of hostile briefings from Downing Street in the last 48 hours raised tempers in the EU capital by portraying officials as intransigent and suggesting that talks were dead in the water.
The claims that the EU had hardened its position provoked a weary response from European Council president Donald Tusk, who accused Mr Johnson of not really wanting a deal.
One unnamed No 10 official also briefed out a heated and contested account of a conversation between Angela Merkel and Mr Johnson, which the German chancellor’s office declined to endorse.
The Downing Street source had claimed a deal was now “essentially impossible” and that talks were now “close to breaking down”. It came after a series of British government threats to EU countries about the effects of a no-deal Brexit, which also raised eyebrows in European capitals.
“Boris Johnson, what’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game,” Mr Tusk said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon as he met with Ms Merkel.
“At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis?”
The episode appeared to prompt the prime minister to hold emergency talks with Irish leader Leo Varadkar on Tuesday evening.
The phone call between the two leaders appeared to temporarily calm the situation, with a Downing Street spokesperson telling reporters afterwards: “The prime minister spoke to the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, tonight. Both sides strongly reiterated their desire to reach a Brexit deal. They hope to meet in person later this week.”
UK and EU officials back in Brussels also reported that talks continued as normal throughout the spat, with a British government spokesperson stating calmly that “talks on the UK proposals continued today as planned” and were even reaching “a critical point” – a far cry from the picture painted by the Downing Street source earlier in the day.
But after meeting with Mr Johnson at Downing Street on Tuesday evening, David Sassoli, the European parliament president, warned: “I came here in the confident hope of hearing proposals which could take negotiations forward. However, I must note that there has been no progress.”
Downing Street denied the accusations that it was starting a blame game. Asked about Mr Tusk’s claim, a spokesperson said: “Absolutely not. It’s not us talking in that language. It’s not the UK which is talking about blame games.”The German chancellery confirmed that Mr Johnson and Ms Merkel spoke on Tuesday morning but declined to confirm the substance of discussions, stating: “As usual we do not give an account of these confidential conversations.” A European Commission spokesperson also urged caution.
But the chair of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, who is from Ms Merkel’s party, said Mr Johnson had used the phone call “for his blame game”.
Outspoken senior MP Norbert Roettgen told German outlet Welt that the UK prime minister was “stuck in Brexit hardliners’ trap with no room for manoeuvre”.
He added: “There is no new German position on Brexit. Frankly a deal on the basis of Johnson’s proposals … has been unrealistic from the beginning and yet the EU has been willing to engage. Blaming others for the current situation is not fair play.”
On the record, the prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “The purpose of the call was to discuss the progress that has been made in the talks so far. I would describe it as a frank exchange. The prime minister set out that the UK had made what we believe to be a significant offer, but if we are to make further progress then the EU will need to compromise.”
Asked whether Mr Johnson viewed a deal as less likely following the call, the spokesperson said: “We do still want a deal and that work is ongoing but we do need to see compromise from the EU side.”
Speaking in the House of Commons, Michael Gove, the minister tasked with no-deal planning, raised the stakes by saying the UK was now prepared to leave without a deal. He however added that “risks remain and challenges for some businesses cannot be entirely mitigated”.
EU leaders will meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday next week, where Brexit will be discussed. Both sides say they want a deal before the meeting. The European Council summit will also decide whether to extend Article 50, which would prevent the UK from crashing out on 31 October without a deal.
Mr Johnson has publicly said he will not seek an extension to the Brexit deadline, though court documents suggest he has privately promised to do so to comply with a law laid down by parliament. The UK is set to leave the EU with or without a deal at the end of October if no extension is secured, or the UK does not revoke Article 50 to cancel Brexit.
Under the British plan to replace the border backstop agreed by Theresa May but rejected by Mr Johnson, Northern Ireland would stay aligned with the EU single market regulations for goods, but stay in the UK customs zone.
The result would be customs checks on products moving between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and regulatory checks on products moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The UK government says the checks could be done away from the border, but it has provided little detail on how – with critics warning the sites would be customs centres in all but name.
The Northern Ireland assembly and executive would also have to vote to keep the plan going every four years, effectively constituting a veto.
Critics of the UK government proposals, including most business groups and parties in Northern Ireland itself, are concerned that the reintroduction of a hard border would make infrastructure a target for dissident Republicans and disrupt the all-Ireland economy.