French President Emmanuel Macron (left) speaks next to newly designated president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in Paris, France, July 23 2019. Picture: LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) speaks next to newly designated president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in Paris, France, July 23 2019. Picture: LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP

Brussels — The EU congratulated incoming British prime minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday but warned of “challenging times ahead” and ruled out heeding his election pledge to renegotiate Brexit.

The French president, the EU’s executive and other officials in the bloc’s hub in Brussels all said they were keen to work with Johnson, the face of the Brexit campaign in Britain’s 2016 referendum. But the limits were clear.

In congratulating Johnson and expressing hope for a good working relationship, Ursula von der Leyen, the German conservative who will take over at the helm of the powerful European Commission from November, said: “We have challenging times ahead of us. We have a duty to deliver something which is good for people in Europe and the UK.”

She was speaking a joint news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

Macron said he wanted to work with Johnson on Brexit as well as on Iran and other international security matters.

US President Donald Trump congratulated Johnson . “A really good man is going to be the prime minister of the UK now, Boris Johnson. A good man. He’s tough and he’s smart. They’re saying ‘Britain Trump.’ They’re calling him ‘Britain Trump’,” the US president said.

He added that Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who was attending the event, would “work well with Boris”.  The two have recently been complimentary about each other — yet Trump is one of the many leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have been the subject of derogatory remarks by Johnson.

In 2015, he accused Trump, then a candidate for office, of “stupefying ignorance” that made him unfit to be president.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said Britain was a “strong ally” and hoped for close co-operation.

Change off-limits

But the bloc’s Brexit negotiator, a deputy head at the European Commission and Macron’s own top EU aide were more direct in telling the new British leader that any major change to the divorce terms London had already agreed to was off-limits.

“We look forward to working constructively with PM Johnson when he takes office, to facilitate the ratification of the withdrawal agreement and achieve an orderly Brexit,” said the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier.

“We are ready also to rework the agreed declaration on a new partnership,” he added, referring to a political declaration on wished-for future relations that accompanies the legally binding withdrawal agreement.

Johnson wants to scrap the so-called Irish backstop, an insurance policy written into the deal to maintain an open border for economic and security reasons between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a British province, after Brexit until a new British-EU trade deal is reached.

Brexiteers fear the backstop could trap Britain in EU trading rules indefinitely and prevent the UK striking trade deals with countries around the world, given that a new trade accord with the bloc could take years to negotiate.

Minutes before Johnson’s victory was announced by the Conservative Party, European Commission deputy chief Frans Timmermans — who will retain his job under Von der Leyen — said the EU would not agree to change the withdrawal accord. The bloc sealed it with outgoing British leader Theresa May last November but it has since been rejected three times by the British parliament.

“The UK reached an agreement with the EU, and the EU will stick to that agreement,” Timmermans told a news conference. “This is the best deal possible.”

He said the EU would hold the line on Brexit and that Johnson’s flamboyant “character or persona or attitude” made no difference.

The EU is bracing for a no-deal Brexit or another delay to Britain’s departure if Johnson follows through on his promises as Britain’s leader.

“We will hear what the new prime minister has to say when he comes to Brussels,” Timmermans said, but warned against the most damaging scenario of the UK leaving without a transitional agreement in place to manage the fallout.

Johnson has promised to deliver Brexit on October 31, with or without a deal.

“A no-deal Brexit, a hard Brexit, would be a tragedy for all sides, not just for the UK,” Timmermans said. “We are all going to suffer if that happens.”

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has said it hopes that the handling of Brexit under Johnson will cause as little disruption as possible in trade with the EU.

“Obviously what we would like to see is the smoothest possible transition. We would not like to see trade disrupted between the UK and the members of the EU. That’s about 47% of the UK’s trade,” WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell said. “We don’t want to see anything else further stymieing the flow of trade.”

The IMF on Tuesday warned that a disorderly Brexit could further slow growth, weaken investment and disrupt supply chains.