A No 10 source has said a Brexit deal is “essentially impossible” after a call between the PM and Angela Merkel.
Boris Johnson and the German chancellor spoke earlier about the proposals he put forward to the EU – but the source said she made clear a deal based on them was “overwhelmingly unlikely”.
The BBC’s Adam Fleming said there was “scepticism” within the EU that Mrs Merkel would have used such language.
And the EU’s top official warned the UK against a “stupid blame game”.
President of the European Council Donald Tusk sent a public tweet to Mr Johnson, writing: “What’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game. At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people.”
Ireland’s Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Simon Coveney, tweeted it was “hard to disagree” with Mr Tusk, writing: “We remain open to finalise a fair Brexit deal, but need a UK government willing to work with the EU to get it done.”
Mrs Merkel’s spokesman said her office would not reveal details of “private, closed” conversations.
The BBC’s Europe editor Katya Adler said it was “no secret” Berlin found the UK’s proposed new customs solution for Northern Ireland problematic, but it had not yet given up hope.
There has been little sign of progress in talks between the two sides since Mr Johnson sent new proposals for a deal to Brussels last week, with the EU demanding “fundamental changes”.
Officially, the prime minister’s spokesman said the talks – aimed at securing an agreement at next week’s EU summit – were “at a crucial point”, but denied they were over.
Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, said Downing Street’s response to the phone call was an “attempt to shift the blame for the Brexit fiasco”.
And Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer told MPs the government was “intent on collapsing the talks and engaging in a reckless blame game”.
“The stark reality is the government put forward proposals that were designed to fail,” he said, adding that it was “beneath contempt” that, according to a Downing Street source reported by the Spectator, the UK could withdraw security co-operation from other EU countries if it were forced to remain beyond 31 October.
The PM has insisted the UK will leave the EU on that date, with or without a deal.
That is despite legislation passed by MPs last month, known as the Benn Act, which requires Mr Johnson to write to the EU requesting a further delay if no deal is signed off by Parliament by 19 October – unless MPs agree to a no-deal Brexit.
The key focus of the new UK plans is to replace the so-called backstop – the policy negotiated by Theresa May and the EU to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland – which has long been a sticking point.
After presenting them, government sources hoped the sides might be able to enter an intense 10-day period of talks almost immediately, but a number of senior EU figures, including Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, warned they did not form the basis for deeper negotiations – even if they believed a deal could still be done.
The No 10 source said Tuesday morning’s phone call – which was not discussed at cabinet – had been a “clarifying moment”, adding: “Talks in Brussels are close to breaking down, despite the fact that the UK has moved a long way.”
The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, is continuing to meet EU counterparts in Brussels, but one European official said he had so little room for manoeuvre, it called into question whether Britain was serious about getting a deal.
No-one really wants to comment directly on this phone call – certainly not Berlin – but talking to EU officials and diplomats in Brussels, there is considerable scepticism.
That’s because the words attributed to Angela Merkel do not reflect the EU’s agreed language.
For one, Mrs Merkel and the EU have repeatedly said they will keep talking to the last second and will not pull the plug before that.
And secondly, the No 10 source claims the EU wants to keep Northern Ireland permanently “trapped” in the customs union – Brussels insists it doesn’t want that at all, it just wants the option for Northern Ireland stay inside temporarily until something else is worked out.
So as I say, scepticism. It could be a misinterpretation or it could be a deliberate bit of spin, because we’re now entering into a blame game about whose fault it is that progress isn’t being made.
Under Mr Johnson’s proposals, which he calls a “broad landing zone” for a new deal with the EU:
- Northern Ireland would leave the EU’s customs union alongside the rest of the UK, at the start of 2021
- But Northern Ireland would continue to apply EU legislation relating to agricultural and other products, if the Northern Ireland Assembly approves
- This arrangement could, in theory, continue indefinitely, but the consent of Northern Ireland’s politicians would have to be sought every four years
- Customs checks on goods traded between the UK and EU would be “decentralised”, with paperwork submitted electronically and only a “very small number” of physical checks
- These checks should take place away from the border itself, at business premises or at “other points in the supply chain”
The No 10 source said the UK was not willing to move away from the principle of providing a consent mechanism for Northern Ireland or the plan for leaving the customs union, and if the EU did not accept those principles, “that will be that” and the plan moving forward would be an “obstructive” strategy towards Brussels.
They also accused the EU of being “willing to torpedo the Good Friday agreement” – the peace process agreed in Northern Ireland in the 1990s – by refusing to accept Mr Johnson’s proposals, arguing the plan is key to respecting the so-called “principle of consent”.
But Mr Varadkar has warned the Johnson plan could actually undermine that principle by giving one party in Northern Ireland a veto over what happens to the country as a whole.
It’s not the official policy of the government yet…
But in government and EU circles it is becoming more likely by the hour that there will not be an agreement at next week’s EU council.
There is no intention in Downing Street to move away from the broad concepts of what they are suggesting regarding either customs or the so-called principle of consent for gaining approval for the PM’s plans from Northern Irish politicians.
So short of a political escape worthy of Houdini, this prime minister is moving towards making the case for leaving without a deal.
To their opponents, that might appear petulant and counter productive, but be in no doubt, if there is no deal this month, Boris Johnson’s government would not suddenly play nice.
And in the likely event that there is an extension, for political reasons No 10 wants to give the impression it was forced into that position.
Timeline: What’s happening ahead of Brexit deadline?
Tuesday 8 October – Last working day in the House of Commons before it is due to be prorogued – suspended – ahead of a Queen’s Speech to begin a new parliamentary session.
Monday 14 October – The Commons is due to return, and the government will use the Queen’s Speech to set out its legislative agenda. The speech will then be debated by MPs throughout the week.
Thursday 17 October – Crucial two-day summit of EU leaders begins in Brussels. This is the last such meeting currently scheduled before the Brexit deadline.
Saturday 19 October – Date by which the PM must ask the EU for another delay to Brexit under the Benn Act, if no Brexit deal has been approved by Parliament and they have not agreed to the UK leaving with no-deal.
Thursday 31 October – Date by which the UK is due to leave the EU, with or without a withdrawal agreement.