“What’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game,” tweeted European Council President Donald Tusk. “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?” Tusk challenged Johnson, mimicking the prime minister’s frequent use of Latin. “Quo vadis?” means “Where are you going?”
Johnson faces multiple deadlines. The European Council meets next week — one of the last possible times to approve a withdrawal deal before the Oct. 31 exit date. The British Parliament has passed a law ordering Johnson to ask the E.U. for a Brexit delay if he has not sealed a deal with the bloc by Oct. 19. But Johnson continues to insist that Britain will leave the trading bloc with or without a deal in three weeks.
The official in Johnson’s office asserted that the Europeans would not budge an inch.
“It was a very useful and clarifying moment in all sorts of ways,” the official was quoted as saying about the call with Merkel. “If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible, not just now but ever.”
The statement from London caused bafflement and pushback in Europe.
The account did not sound like Merkel, diplomats said. Over the past three years, the chancellor has consistently allowed for more talks, more time for Britain to figure out what it wants from Brexit and to offer solutions.
Merkel’s office remained tight-lipped on Tuesday, saying it did not discuss details of private conversations. The chancellor did not address the issue during a televised statement alongside the visiting Estonian president Tuesday evening.
Later in the day, Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters that “discussions are ongoing in Brussels” but also stressed that talks were at a “critical point” and that a compromise must now come from Europe.
After Johnson submitted Brexit proposals last week that crossed E.U. red lines, European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said it was on the British side that additional work needed to happen.
How to address the border between Northern Ireland, which would leave with the rest of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain part of the E.U., has been one of the thorniest complications.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought an end to a hard border, after decades of sectarian conflict, and there are fears that bringing back a border would not only disrupt lives and business but also be a magnet for new violence.
The E.U. has been critical of Johnson’s proposal to reintroduce customs checks.
The anonymous official in Johnson’s office was quoted as saying: “Merkel said that if Germany wanted to leave the E.U., they could do it, no problem. But the U.K. cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland behind in a customs union and in full alignment forever.”
The Merkel call made clear that Europe is “willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement,” the official said.
Use of words such as “torpedo” suggested to analysts that the briefing was deeply partisan.
“The U.K. government’s attempt to shift the blame for the Brexit fiasco to anyone but themselves — today it’s Merkel — is pathetically transparent,” said Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who opposes both Johnson and Brexit.
Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said it wasn’t his country’s fault there was a stalemate.
“No country wants a deal more than Ireland, but we will not strike a deal at any cost,” he told a news conference in Dublin.
Coveney declined to directly criticize Johnson, saying instead there was a “lot of misinformation” circulating.
Booth reported from London. Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.