HELSINKI (Reuters) - European Union ministers on Thursday urged Britain to choose an orderly Brexit, with some openly expressing concern that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to suspend parliament increased the risk of a chaotic split.
As EU foreign and defence ministers met in Helsinki, Johnson’s government challenged opponents in the British parliament to try to bring it down or change the law to stop Britain’s departure from the bloc on Oct. 31.
“We still hope it will be possible to avoid a no-deal Brexit and we are looking forward to any proposals from the British government that fit into the Withdrawal Agreement,” Dutch Foreign Minister Stephan Blok said. “It’s in nobody’s interest to see a no-deal Brexit.”
The British parliament has three times rejected the Withdrawal Agreement, the divorce deal agreed between Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May and Brussels, and Johnson has promised to renegotiate it or leave without an agreement on Oct.31.
Johnson’s Brexit negotiator David Frost was in Brussels for talks with the executive European Commission on Wednesday, but Blok said the sides had not managed to bridge divisions.
“I know that there have been serious talks in Brussels but we are not there yet,” he said.
An EU diplomat briefed on the meeting said the British side presented no detailed ideas on what could replace the most contentious part of the divorce deal called the backstop, a mechanism that would keep the sensitive Irish border open after Brexit by tying Britain to EU trading rules.
“They presented nothing concrete but are to return next week and said they want to test ideas with the Commission,” the diplomat said.
“In the meantime, Johnson has taken everyone by surprise and put the opposition firmly on the spot. He is pushing for an early election - we just don’t know if before, or after Oct.31.”
The threat of no-deal Brexit weighed on the sterling on Thursday.
While most ministers avoided comment on the suspension of the British parliament, saying it was an internal matter, Austria’s Alexander Schallenberg said when asked if a hard Brexit was more likely because of the move: “I fear so, yes.”
“The ball is in the UK’s court... We have done whatever is possible to ensure an orderly exit of Britain,” he said. “When the other side says that’s not possible, they need to say what the alternatives are, namely in substance.”
The EU wants Britain to find solutions to unlock ratification of their divorce treaty.
“The EU is united on the agreement, now it’s up to the UK to decide on that,” said Malta’s Carmelo Abela.
Johnson’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, in Helsinki, said of parliament’s suspension: “It happens every year.”
Johnson called a Queen’s Speech - the formal state opening of a new parliament at which Queen Elizabeth reads out the government’s priorities and legislative agenda - for Oct. 14.
While parliament is normally suspended for a few days ahead of a Queen’s Speech, the move caused outrage because of its timing and the length of the shutdown, which Johnson’s opponents say is an attempt to limit parliament’s ability to derail his Brexit plans weeks before EU exit day.
Finland holds the EU’s rotating presidency and was hosting the ministers on Thursday. Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said: “To support Brexit with the deal is a key issue because otherwise we will face a lot of negative consequences to our economies and our border traffic.”
“We hope that the way this divorce will happen will not make it impossible that we have good cooperation afterwards,” said Hungary’s Peter Szijjarto.
Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Sabine Siebold in Berlin, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Janet Lawrence and Angus MacSwan