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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seen speaking in Rotherham, England, on Sept. 13, 2019, will meet with the European Commission President and the EU's chief Brexit negotiator to discuss a way out of the impasse over the Irish backstop.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will hold his first face-to-face meeting with top European Union officials on Monday, as signs emerge of a potential breakthrough in the Brexit impasse.

Mr. Johnson will have a working lunch in Luxembourg with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, to discuss a way out of the logjam.

“I absolutely believe that our friends in Europe want an orderly exit, so now is the time for serious talks,” Mr. Johnson said on Sunday.

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The men are expected to discuss possible changes to the contentious Irish backstop provision, which is designed to keep the Irish border open after Brexit. It’s not clear if a solution can be found, but there have been indications Mr. Johnson will propose an alternative that would be acceptable to Ireland, the EU and hardline Brexit backers in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Johnson doesn’t have much time to reach a deal. He has been adamant the United Kingdom will leave the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a withdrawal agreement. His tough position has led to a standoff with the British Parliament, which has passed a law that forces him to seek an extension if he hasn’t reached a deal by Oct. 19. Mr. Johnson has insisted he wants a deal, but he has refused to consider any delay, further antagonizing MPs including many fellow Conservatives.

Mr. Johnson has shrugged off the political discord and on Sunday he compared himself to the Incredible Hulk. “The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets,” he told The Mail on Sunday.

The political fallout from his Brexit strategy has intensified. On Sunday, Tory MP Sam Gyimah became the second Conservative to defect to the Liberal Democrats. In a statement, Mr. Gyimah lashed out at Mr. Johnson on Brexit and for veering the party “towards populism and English nationalism.” The defection further weakens Mr. Johnson’s government, which has already lost its majority in the House of Commons.

In another blow to Mr. Johnson, former Conservative prime minister David Cameron has issued a scathing critique of his successor. Mr. Cameron was the architect of the 2016 Brexit referendum and he campaigned for the country to remain in the EU. He resigned immediately after the vote, which saw 52 per cent of voters back leaving. In a series of excerpts from his memoirs, For the Record, which will be released this week, Mr. Cameron slammed Mr. Johnson and other Vote Leave campaigners for lying during the referendum campaign and he accused Mr. Johnson of political opportunism. "The conclusion I am left with is that he risked an outcome he didn’t believe in because it would help his political career,” Mr. Cameron wrote. He also slammed Michael Gove, a Tory cabinet minister and former friend who co-led the Vote Leave campaign with Mr. Johnson. Both men “behaved appallingly, attacking their own government, turning a blind eye to their side’s unpleasant actions and becoming ambassadors for the expert-trashing, truth-twisting age of populism,” Mr. Cameron wrote. Neither Mr. Johnson nor Mr. Gove have responded to the criticism.

Finding a solution to the backstop won’t be easy. The provision was included in a complex deal Theresa May struck with the EU in 2018. It called for Northern Ireland to remain largely aligned to EU regulations while the rest of the country stayed in a form of the bloc’s customs union. The backstop would remain in place until the U.K. and EU struck a broader free-trade agreement.

Since taking over from Ms. May in July, Mr. Johnson has maintained the backstop must be scrapped because it aligns the country too closely with the EU. However, the EU and Ireland have refused, arguing that it’s essential. Mr. Johnson is believed to be ready to propose a plan that would restrict the backstop to Northern Ireland and exclude the rest of the country. It’s far from certain the plan goes far enough to satisfy Ireland and the EU, but there have been positive signals from Brexiters and the Conservatives’ ally in Parliament, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which would have some say over the provision. “We can see a landing zone in terms of a future deal, but there is significant work still to do,” Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told Sky News on Sunday.

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Boris Johnson’s move to prorogue British parliament until mid-October may have stalled his political opponents, but the embattled prime minister has no easy route to his goal of leaving the European Union by October 31. European Correspondent Paul Waldie examines what could unfold next in the Brexit saga.
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