One of the EU’s most senior figures has said he has “no emotional attachment” to the part of the Brexit deal Britain is trying to get Brussels to remove.
But European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker insisted he would “stand by the objectives” of the Irish backstop – the insurance policy to prevent a hard border forming on the island of Ireland.
It comes as Nigel Farage hit out at the “pipsqueak” prime minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, accusing him of trying to “ritually humiliate” the UK for going ahead with a planned news conference without Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Mr Juncker repeated a call for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to make “concrete, operational, textual proposals” on alternatives to replace the Irish backstop.
No-deal on 31 October is a “palpable risk”, he added, saying he did not believe “any real progress has been achieved” to getting a withdrawal agreement both sides are happy with.
Opening a debate in the European Parliament, Mr Juncker declared that “this house is open and in action, and not prorogued”, apparently in reference to the prime minister shutting down the UK parliament for five weeks and the subsequent legal battle being fought in the Supreme Court.
He revealed his talks with Mr Johnson in Luxembourg on Monday were “friendly, constructive and – in part – positive”.
Mr Juncker moved on to insist no-deal would “never be the preferred option of the EU” but accepted Mr Johnson’s word that he plans to deliver Brexit “do or die” on 31 October.
“I told Boris Johnson that I have no emotional attachment to the backstop,” he declared.
“But I made clear that I do have an intimate commitment to its objectives.
“I invited the prime minister to make concrete, operational, textual proposals on alternative ways in which backstop goals can be met.”
His words were followed by the EU’s Brexit negotiator delivering a sterner ultimatum.
“The UK government has outlined aspects of the backstop it doesn’t like,” said Michel Barnier.
“That is not enough. We need a legally operable solution. We are open to any proposal and will work day and night.”
Mr Barnier also warned the prime minister should “not be pretending to negotiate”, amid concerns by some MPs he is not trying hard enough to get a new withdrawal agreement.
Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, also weighed in to the debate to dispute Mr Johnson likening Britain to the Incredible Hulk breaking free of the bloc.
“‘Boris Johnson likes to compare himself to movie characters,” he said.
“Concerning citizens’ rights – instead of playing the angry Hulk, I think he should inspire himself by another character – the caring nanny in the film of Mrs Doubtfire.”
Mr Farage later said it sounded like the EU was “very close to a deal on the backstop being agreed”.
He said the bloc had shown no “good faith” because of Mr Bettel’s treatment of Mr Johnson, who had “set out to ritually humiliate a British prime minister in the most astonishing way only to be greeted like a hero by [French] President Macron at the Elysee Palace yesterday”.
Downing Street said earlier this week Mr Johnson remains confident he can “reach a deal with the backstop removed, that UK parliamentarians could support”.
It added discussions with the EU will “intensify” and now occur daily.