British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s first meeting with top European Union officials ended with no Brexit deal in sight, a botched news conference and a tongue-lashing from the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, who admonished the British leader’s tactics.
Mr. Johnson travelled to Luxembourg on Monday for what he hoped would be the first step toward finding a way out of the Brexit impasse. Instead, he left without making any progress and only exposed the growing gulf between his flowery language and the skepticism of the EU.
Prior to leaving for Luxembourg, Mr. Johnson said he was on the verge of striking a withdrawal agreement with the EU, but he also refused to relent on his pledge to pull Britain out on Oct. 31 no matter what. He even compared himself to the Incredible Hulk, saying that like the Hulk his power grows stronger with rage.
His bold talk didn’t appear to do much good. After a two-hour lunch with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Mr. Johnson was no further ahead. Mr. Juncker said Mr. Johnson still hadn’t come up with any proposals for changing the existing withdrawal agreement struck by his predecessor, Theresa May. He added that it was “the U.K.’s responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions.” Things got worse for Mr. Johnson after he met Mr. Bettel, who has been seen as an unofficial spokesman for EU leaders.
The prime ministers were supposed to hold a joint news conference in a courtyard outside Mr. Bettel’s office. Mr. Johnson wanted the media briefing moved indoors because of a group of noisy protesters but Mr. Bettel refused. Instead, he went ahead with the briefing without Mr. Johnson and gestured toward the empty podium. In an extraordinary exchange with reporters, Mr. Bettel unloaded on the absent Prime Minister and took him to task for failing to come up with any proposals. “I just have one withdrawal agreement on the table,” he said referring to Ms. May’s deal. “There are no concrete proposals for the moment on the table. And I won’t give an agreement to ideas. We need written proposals and the time is ticking. Stop speaking, but act …. I told him I hear a lot but I don’t read a lot.” He added that the current indecision was “a nightmare” and that people across the EU, and in the U.K., deserved clarity.
Mr. Bettel didn’t slow down. He also mocked Mr. Johnson’s comparison to Hulk and lashed out at the British Prime Minister, and other Brexit supporters, for lying during the 2016 referendum campaign. He became visibly angry when asked if he thought Mr. Johnson was trying to set up a situation where the EU would be blamed for a no-deal Brexit. “The fact is some people would love to give the blame to another and not [take] responsibility for the situation,” he said. It was Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party that called the referendum and they have to deal with the consequences, he said. “We did not decide to organize that Brexit … So don’t make it like the European Union would be the bad guy not accepting the decisions that the U.K. proposes … These are homemade problems.” He added that the U.K. also couldn’t unilaterally decide the future relationship.
Before heading back to London, Mr. Johnson insisted that the meetings had gone well and that progress on a deal had been made. “Yes, we’ve got a good chance of a deal,” he told reporters during an impromptu briefing at the British embassy. “Yes, I can see the shape of it. Everybody could see roughly what could be done. But it will require movement.” He also denied suggestions that he wasn’t negotiating in good faith. EU leaders “know that we’re all working very hard to get a deal. This is a difficult moment because clearly we’re very, very keen to do it but I don’t want people to think it’s necessarily in the bag,” he said. As for the news conference debacle, Mr. Johnson played down the mix up. “I think there was clearly going to be a lot of noise,” he said. “And I think our points might’ve been drowned out.”