Boris Johnson fired the first shots in a new Brexit battle with the EU on Thursday, just hours into his first full day as Prime Minister, as the EU’s chief negotiator branded Johnson’s position “combative” and “unacceptable.”
Michel Barnier emailed EU leaders after the UK’s new prime minister told MPs the Irish backstop protocol must be stripped out of the withdrawal agreement.
Out-going EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker flagged up Brussels concerns with Johnson directly, using a telephone call to reiterate the deal negotiated by his predecessor is the “best and only agreement possible”.
In his first appearance in the Commons since taking over at 10 Downing Street, Johnson held nothing back as he lambasted the deal negotiated by his predecessor – despite having voted for it himself in March.
He said: “No country that values its independence and indeed its self-respect could agree to a Treaty which signed away our economic independence and self-government as this backstop does.
“A time limit is not enough.
“If an agreement is to be reached it must be clearly understood that the way to the deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop.”
His speech prompted Barnier to write to the EU leaders, setting out his concerns about the UK’s shift in negotiating position.
“This is of course unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European Council,” he wrote, adding: “As suggested by his rather combative speech, we have to be ready for a situation where he gives priority to the planning for ‘no deal’, partly to heap pressure on the unity of the EU27.”
Barnier urged member states to “remain calm” and show “solidarity and unity”.
Johnson used his speech to MPs to confirm that former leadership rival Michael Gove was now responsible for no-deal planning, and repeated his pledge to withhold the £39billion the UK had agreed to pay the EU after leaving the bloc.
In a bid to show he was serious about leaving the EU on 31 October “do or die,” Johnson vowed to prepare an economic boost for the UK.
He said: “We will begin right away on working to change the tax rules to provide extra incentives to invest in capital and research and we will be accelerating the talks on those free trade deals.
“We will prepare an economic package to boost British business and lengthen this country’s lead as the number one destination in this continent for overseas investment.”