Britain and Luxembourg have clashed after Boris Johnson cancelled a press conference in the city to avoid being “drowned out” by anti-Brexit protesters.
Downing Street claimed Luxembourg repeatedly refused to move the event inside after the prime minister was greeted with a chorus of boos as he arrived for Brexit talks with his counterpart, Xavier Bettel.
In embarrassing scenes for the UK, Bettel went ahead with the press conference, leaving an empty podium next to him and repeatedly criticising Johnson for failing to come up with proposals to solve the Brexit “nightmare”, urging him to “stop speaking and act”.
Hitting back, a Number 10 source described Luxembourg’s refusal to move the press conference inside as “extraordinary”, although local officials reportedly insisted there would not be enough space.
Johnson meanwhile insisted his push to get a Brexit deal was not a “sham”, after a senior government source insisted the UK did not want to present the EU with written proposals yet for fear they would immediately get leaked and “trashed”.
The PM, who had promised to act like the Incredible Hulk in his efforts to get the UK out of the EU, suggested he would not be able to make himself heard over the protests, such were their ferocity.
“I think there was clearly going to be a lot of noise and our points might have been drowned out,” he said.
A Number 10 source added: “We arrived, it became clearly technically impossible to do a press conference due to the number of people who would boo and chant over the speakers.
“We felt that wouldn’t work, we asked repeatedly to move it inside, they refused.
“The whole series of events is extraordinary and reflects far more on them than it does us.”
Following lunch with European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker, Johnson scored a minor win with an agreement to “intensify” negotiations on the Brexit deal.
But after subsequent talks with Bettel, the Luxembourg PM expressed his frustration at the lack of concrete proposals on how the UK intends to replace the controversial Irish backstop in the current Brexit deal.
And he insisted the EU would not be to blame if Johnson could not strike a new deal and get it approved by MPs to ensure Britain leaves in an orderly fashion on October 31.
“This Brexit it’s not my choice,” Bettel said in an address marked by cheers from the pro-EU demonstrators.
“It’s been a decision from a party, a decision from David Cameron to do it.
“They decide, I deeply regret it, but don’t put the blame on us because now they don’t know how to get out of this situation.”
He went on: “Theresa May accepted the withdrawal agreement. So don’t make it like the European Union is the bad guy not accepting decisions the UK proposes. They accepted them.
“These are home-made problems. I won’t accept any time to be responsible as a European leader... for, I am sorry, the mess we are in for the moment.”
Johnson hit back, insisting the UK’s attempts at negotiations were not a sham.
“I don’t know who you’ve been talking to but that’s not what our interlocutors at EU heads of government level think at all. They know that we’re all working very hard to get a deal,” he said.
“This is a difficult moment because clearly we’re very, very keen to do it but I don’t want people to think it’s necessarily in the bag.
“It isn’t necessarily in the bag, there will be hard work to be done.”
Downing Street is likely to be pleased with Juncker’s agreement to step up negotiations and schedule talks involving EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay.
But Juncker again stressed that Johnson had not submitted any new proposals to replace the Irish backstop, which the UK government wants to scrap from the Brexit deal.
After a lunch of lunch of chicken oysters, pollock risotto and basil sorbet at a Luxembourg restaurant, a European Commission spokesperson said: “President Juncker recalled that it is the UK’s responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement. President Juncker underlined the commission’s continued willingness and openness to examine whether such proposals meet the objectives of the backstop. Such proposals have not yet been made.
“The commission will remain available to work 24/7. The October European Council will be an important milestone in the process. The EU27 remain united.”
At home, Johnson was facing pressure to reveal his proposals to replace the backstop from Commons Brexit committee chairman Hilary Benn.
In a letter to Johnson, Benn said the PM had told the Commons he would set out his plan “long before” the 30-day timetable suggested by Chancellor Angela Merkel when they met in August, and which expires in four days.