Jean-Claude Juncker has handed Boris Johnson an unexpected lifeline, saying he thinks it’s possible for the UK and EU to reach a Brexit deal.
But he said he didn’t know whether the chances of a deal being hatched before the Halloween deadline were better than 50/50.
The outgoing European Commission President’s intervention came just hours after Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told a meeting of business leaders in Madrid the EU should let Britain solve the Northern Ireland border issue after leaving the bloc.
“We are told the UK must provide a legally operative text by the 31 October,” he said.
“Yet the alternative to the backstop is not necessary until the end of the [treaty-established transition] period in December 2020 . . . Why risk crystallising an undesirable result this November when both sides can work together — until December 2020?”
Brussels has insisted the border issue must be resolved in the first phase of divorce negotiations, putting the backstop in place in case no other solution can be found before the transition period expires.
Mr Juncker said his meeting with Johnson on Monday in Luxembourg had been “rather positive”.
In the interview with Sky News, he added: “We can have a deal.”
And he said he was not wedded to the idea of a backstop to keep the Northern Ireland border open as long as the UK could demonstrate ‘alternative arrangements’ could do the same job.
He said: “As far as the so-called alternative arrangements are concerned, allowing us and Britain to achieve the main objectives of the backstop … if the results are there, I don’t care about the instrument,” he said “If the objectives are met, all of them, then we don’t need the backstop.”
But asked if the chances were more than 50/50, he replied: "I don't know.
"I'm doing everything to have a deal because I don't like the idea of no deal because this would have catastrophic consequences.
"It's better for Britain and for the European Union to have an organised deal."
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