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Johnson and Juncker hold Brexit lunch amid backstop impasse

Luxembourg - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for lunch on Monday, after insisting he is "working flat out" to prevent a no-deal Brexit on October 31.

First Meeting

Their meeting, at a restaurant in Juncker's native Luxembourg, is the first since Johnson took over in July. It comes ahead of a summit of EU leaders next month at which the British premier hopes to strike a new Brexit deal with the European Union.

Johnson has vowed not to further postpone Britain's EU departure date, while refusing to accept the terms of a deal previously negotiated with Brussels aimed at smoothing the transition.

The British parliament has passed legislation aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit, leaving Johnson needing a new deal with Brussels in order to meet his deadline. A lack of agreement could mean he faces a potential showdown in the British courts over a no deal scenario.

"If we can make enough progress in the next few days, I intend to go to that crucial summit on October 17 and finalize an agreement that will protect the interests of business and citizens on both sides," Johnson wrote in The Daily Telegraph.

"I believe passionately that we can do it," he said.

"Europe never loses patience"

Asked in Luxembourg if he was optimistic about Monday's meeting, Johnson said he was "cautious, just cautious," a journalist working for Germany's ZDF broadcaster wrote on Twitter.

Juncker, meanwhile, told journalists gathered outside their lunch venue that "Europe never loses patience," according to a tweet by his spokeswoman Mina Andreeva.

The talks take place amid mounting frustration at the lack of concrete proposals out of London.

"If prime minister Johnson does not bring something new to the talks and meeting with Juncker, then to be honest there is no more need [to talk] on our side, then there will be a hard Brexit," said Austrian Minister for European Affairs Alexander Schallenberg.

"It's very difficult to react without a concrete proposal," added his Belgian counterpart Didier Reynders, at a meeting of EU ministers in Brussels.

In particular, London rejects the so-called backstop aimed at preventing the emergence of border controls between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. The open border is at the core of a peace deal for the divided island.

In recent weeks, British Brexit negotiator David Frost has held talks with the commission on possible workable alternatives to the backstop.
This includes ideas on "customs, manufactured goods and ways forward in managing agri-food on a common basis on the island of Ireland," according to a British government source.

Johnson insistent, Juncker worried

But Juncker said he was "not optimistic" about finding arrangements that could replace the backstop, in an interview aired Sunday with German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

Without a transitional Brexit deal, EU rules cease to apply in Britain overnight, likely causing disruption and serious economic costs on both sides of the border.

Ahead of Monday's talks, the BusinessEurope industry association warned of the "massive damage" a no-deal Brexit would cause, arguing that a new extension would be preferable.

But in a weekend newspaper interview, Johnson vowed to stick to the current deadline, referencing Marvel's Incredible Hulk cartoon character.

"The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets," he told the Mail on Sunday.

"Hulk always escaped, no matter how tightly bound in he seemed to be - and that is the case for this country. We will come out on October 31 and we will get it done," Johnson added

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