The French President has told Boris Johnson the EU will not tear up the Brexit deal negotiated by Theresa May.
Emmanuel Macron told the Prime Minister in Paris there could not be a “reshuffling” of the Withdrawal Agreement – but he left open the possibility of making some changes to the deal.
He backed the 30-day timescale suggested by German leader Angela Merkel on Wednesday for the UK to come forward with its proposals but warned the Irish backstop – the major stumbling block – was indispensable.
“We will not find a new Withdrawal Agreement within 30 days that will be very different from the existing one,” he said as he spoke alongside the Prime Minister at Elysee Palace.
Mrs Merkel sought to play down the importance of the 30-day period she had floated on Wednesday, saying it was merely “an allegory for being able to do it in a short period of time”.
Speaking to reporters in the Netherlands she said that “it would be better to say one can achieve that by October 31”.
In an effort to avoid the EU being blamed if a no-deal Brexit is the outcome on October 31, Mr Macron said failure to reach an acceptable deal would be “a political decision to be taken by the Prime Minister, it’s not our decision”.
Mr Johnson has demanded the backstop – a contingency plan aimed at ensuring a soft border with Ireland in all circumstances – should be scrapped.
Mr Macron said the Withdrawal Agreement and Irish backstop are “not just technical constraints or legal quibbling” but are “genuine, indispensable guarantees” to preserve stability in Ireland and the integrity of the single market.
He said the EU had “always said that it was available to discuss, depending on the wishes of the UK, our future relationship”.
The two leaders were speaking ahead of their formal talks at the Elysee.
Mr Johnson stressed while he wants an agreement, the UK “must come out of the EU on October 31 – deal or no-deal”.
He insisted alternatives to the backstop could be found as “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.
There were “positive noises” about ways of addressing the issue, he said.
“She (Mrs Merkel) said if we can do this in two years then we can do this in 30 days and I admire that ‘can-do’ spirit that she seemed to have and I think she is right.
“I think that the technical solutions are readily available and they have been discussed at great length.
“You can have trusted-trader schemes, you can have electronic pre-clearing for goods moving across the border and I just want to repeat one crucial thing, under no circumstances will the UK be putting checks at the frontier.
“We don’t think it is necessary from the point of view of the EU to do that to protect the integrity of the single market, we think there are other ways of doing that. We have got I think adequate time to do it, let’s get on and do it.”
Mr Johnson said that he wanted a Brexit that was as “pain-free as possible” whether or not there was a deal.
“A great deal of work has already been done to ensure that the transition on October 31 is as smooth as it possibly can be and so there are already agreements on aviation, on financial services, many other sectors,” he said.
In the remaining days before Brexit “we want to make sure we do all the necessary work on both sides of the Channel to make sure that whether we get an agreement or not our exit is as smooth and pain-free as possible for citizens and businesses on both sides”.
The meeting between the two leaders comes after Mr Macron issued a stark warning about the UK’s place on the world stage after Brexit.
The G7 summit in Biarritz starting on Saturday will be Mr Johnson’s debut at a global event and he is expected to meet Donald Trump, who has previously been an isolated figure at such gatherings.
On Wednesday Mr Macron warned that the UK would be a “junior partner” in its relationship with Washington if it sought to strenghten transatlantic links after a hard Brexit.
“Can the cost for Britain of a hard Brexit – because Britain will be the main victim – be offset by the United States of America? No,” Mr Macron said.
“And even if it were a strategic choice, it would be at the cost of a historic vassalisation of Britain.”