Two side-by-side lecterns, set against a verdant backdrop in a medieval European capital, with one standing empty: it was a scene that might prove all too symbolic in the seemingly never-ending saga of Brexit.
As an impasse over Britain’s departure from the European Union has stretched into months and then years, heads of government in European Union member states have dutifully adhered to an unwritten maxim: Don’t overtly criticize the sitting British prime minister in public, even at extremely frustrating junctures in the drawn-out negotiations over how and when the split will occur.
That changed Monday, when Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel delivered what might be the bluntest Brexit-related rebuke yet of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was in town for talks less than seven weeks before his country’s scheduled departure from the bloc, on Oct. 31.
“Stop speaking and act,” the normally mild-mannered leader of one of Europe’s smallest sovereign states said heatedly, addressing the absent British prime minister. Gesturing toward the empty lectern beside him, Bettel said of the Brexit deadlock: “It’s on Mr. Johnson.”
Monday’s outburst by Bettel was the latest sign that European leaders are wary of Johnson blaming them if no deal is agreed to — or even seeking to goad one of the member states into vetoing another delay for Brexit’s effective date. Approval for a new departure date would need to be unanimous.
Johnson’s office declined to have him appear at an open-air news conference after his meeting with Bettel, citing the presence of a small but audible group of anti-Brexit protesters, most of them expatriate Britons, who were clustered behind metal barricades some distance away.
At a separate appearance before reporters in front of the British embassy, Johnson suggested that the shouts of demonstrators might have made it difficult for the leaders to make themselves heard. “I don’t think it would have been fair to the prime minister of Luxembourg,” he said.
At his solo appearance, Bettel blasted the British leader for arriving at Monday’s meetings, which also included talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, with no new ideas in hand.
“The clock is ticking,” the Luxembourg prime minister told reporters. “There are no concrete proposals for the moment on the table — we need British proposals.”
The British Parliament has passed a law to prevent Johnson from carrying out a disruptive “no-deal” Brexit, demanding that he seek a delay if no accord is struck with the EU in the next month. In Luxembourg, Johnson again refused to rule out a no-deal Brexit, despite Parliament’s ban on one, and despite fears that an abrupt rupture with the EU could trigger shortages of fresh foods and medicine and deliver a powerful economic shock.
He said there was a “good chance” of striking an accord but vowed to “make sure we can come out on the 31st of October, deal or no deal.”
Juncker, meeting Johnson face-to-face for the first time since the prime minister took office in late July, described their encounter as “friendly,” while the British side called the talks “constructive.” But neither reported any progress.
European Union member states usually refrain from commenting on one another’s domestic political upheavals, but Bettel specifically called out Johnson’s Conservative Party, which no longer holds a majority in Parliament, for the Brexit quagmire.
“Don’t put the blame on us because now they don’t know how to get out of this” — he paused at considerable length — “situation,” he said. Johnson has sought early elections, hoping to regain the upper hand for his party, but lawmakers have twice rebuffed him.
British leaders are accustomed to far less spiky public treatment from their counterparts on the Continent, most of whom would prefer to avoid the split altogether but want at the very least to avoid a chaotic “crash-out” by Britain.
At an August meeting in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, although only a decade older than the 55-year-old Johnson, struck a tone akin to maternal solicitousness, calling him “dear Boris” as she advised him to try to come up with any suggested new withdrawal plan in the next 30 days. That was 26 days ago, and no fresh proposals have been unveiled by Johnson’s government.
The EU said Johnson and his government had yet to offer “legally operational” solutions to the thorniest problem: keeping open the border between Ireland, which will remain in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which will leave the bloc along with the rest of the UK.
Johnson continues to startle some interlocutors with his rhetorical flights of fancy. Over the weekend, he compared himself to the Incredible Hulk, the comic-book superhero.
“The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets,” Johnson told the Mail on Sunday newspaper. “And he always escapes.”
The Brexit chief in the European parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, called the comparison “infantile,” asking: “Is the EU supposed to be scared by this?”
Also weighing in was actor Mark Ruffalo, who depicts the gargantuan green-skinned superhero and his scientist alter ego Bruce Banner in the “Avengers” franchise. He said the prime minister had missed out on some crucial character nuance.
“Boris Johnson forgets that the Hulk only fights for the good of the whole,” Ruffalo, who often supports progressive causes, wrote Sunday on Twitter. “Mad and strong also can be dense and destructive. The Hulk works best when he is in unison with a team, and is a disaster when he is alone.”