IF he ever decided to take up playing poker as a profession, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier would show that he has no fear when it comes to raising the stakes in a game of power.

Yesterday Barnier flatly rejected Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s demands for the Irish backstop to be scrapped. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph Barnier said the backstop – intended to avoid a post-Brexit hard border on the island of Ireland – was the “maximum flexibility” the EU could offer.

Johnson has previously stated the backstop must be ditched if a No Deal Brexit is to be avoided. Barnier was having none of that and the former French cabinet minister appeared to go against his own president, Emanuel Macron, and German chancellor Angela Merkel who have indicated to Boris Johnson that they will listen to new proposals.

Barnier said: “I am not optimistic about avoiding a No-Deal scenario, but we should all continue to work with determination.

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“The EU is ready to explore all avenues that the UK Government may present and that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement.

“Its objective is simply to have an insurance policy in place that guarantees that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remains fully open, and that the status quo of cross-border exchanges on the island of Ireland is maintained.”

Barnier added: ‘On the EU side, we had intense discussions with EU member states on the need to guarantee the integrity of the EU’s single market, while keeping that border fully open.

“In this sense, the backstop is the maximum amount of flexibility that the EU can offer to a non-member state.

“Why? Because the backstop provides Northern Ireland with the economic benefits of the single market for goods, which the EU is exceptionally willing to offer due to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland.”

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The EU could not stop the UK from leaving without a deal, he said, but he “would fail to understand the logic of that choice” because “we would still need to solve the same problems after October 31”.

Barnier added: “The UK has now come to a moment of truth and it must decide if it leaves the EU with or without an agreement.

“If it chooses the latter, it means that there will be no transition period and no so-called ‘mini-deals’, as the EU will only act to protect its own interests.

“In case of ‘No-Deal’, all the UK’s financial and other obligations from its past EU membership will continue to exist.”

Barnier is well aware that Johnson will blame the EU for No Deal. He wrote: “Many people in the UK understand that and I would be surprised if they succumb to the idea that the EU is to blame for a difficult political situation in the UK.”

The National:

With Johnson not commenting, it was left to Michael Gove, the Cabinet minister in charge of preparing for No Deal, to give the UK Government response.

He told Andrew Marr on BBC: “One of the things about Michel Barnier is that he’s representing the [European] Commission’s position and ultimately the commission does what the member states decree.

“And with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel both having said that the withdrawal agreement can change, we have progress and that progress has come about as the result of the Prime Minister’s clarity on the question that we must leave on October 31.”

Other Brexiteers backed Johnson and Gove. Speaking on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge show, International Development Secretary Alok Sharma said the Prime Minister must be given time to secure a new deal.

He said: “We want any future agreement not to have the backstop ... The reality is that the previous withdrawal agreement, which contained the backstop, did not pass on three occasions. It didn’t pass then, it won’t pass again.”