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U.K. says chances of Brexit deal slim, EU chides 'blame game'

The U.K. government says the chances of a Brexit deal with the European Union are fading fast, as the two sides remain unwilling to shift from their entrenched positions

Government says it will leave EU on Oct. 31 with or without a divorce deal

Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to health professionals at Watford General Hospital in the U.K., on Monday. The next day, he published more details of planning for a no-deal Brexit. (Peter Summers/Pool Photo via AP)

The U.K. government said Tuesday the chances of a Brexit deal with the European Union are fading fast, and blamed EU intransigence for the breakdown.

But the bloc denied changing its stance, and a top EU leader accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of playing a "stupid blame game."

Johnson's office gave a gloomy assessment after a call between the prime minister and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday morning.

In a statement to media, 10 Downing Street said Merkel had told the prime minister "a deal is overwhelmingly unlikely" unless Northern Ireland remains in a customs union with the EU — something the U.K. says it can't allow.

Downing Street said "if this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever."

'We want a deal'

The German government confirmed the two leaders had spoken by phone. It didn't comment on the substance of the discussion, saying in an emailed response to a query that "as usual, we are not reporting on such confidential conversations."

European Commission spokesperson Mina Andreeva said "the EU position has not changed. We want a deal. We are working for a deal with the U.K."

European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted testily that "what's at stake is not winning some stupid blame game."

"At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people," he said, addressing Johnson. "You don't want a deal, you don't want an extension, you don't want to revoke, quo vadis?" — a Latin phrase meaning "where are you going?"

EU leaders have demanded more "realism" from Britain in response to a Brexit plan proposed by Johnson. The bloc says the proposals don't fulfil the U.K.'s commitment to a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

Johnson, meanwhile, has urged the bloc to compromise.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said the EU will assess by Friday whether a deal is possible.

Johnson insists the U.K. will leave the EU on Oct. 31 even without a deal. Many economists say that would disrupt trade and plunge the country into recession.

On Tuesday, Britain published more details of its plans for a no-deal Brexit, which the government says can minimize any economic shock from leaving without a deal — but major business groups warn that no amount of preparation can eliminate the pain of new barriers with the EU, which accounts for almost half of U.K. trade.

Won't see delay: Johnson

Many in the EU — and in the United Kingdom — are skeptical Britain would leave the bloc on Oct. 31, because the U.K. Parliament has passed a law compelling the government to ask the EU for a delay to Brexit if no deal is agreed upon by Oct. 19.

Johnson said he would obey the law, but would not ask for a delay. It's not clear how those two statements can be reconciled — but it's clear Johnson wants to pin the blame for any delay on Parliament and the EU, so that he can campaign as a champion of Brexit in a U.K. election that's likely to be called soon.

Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesperson for the main opposition Labour Party, said the Downing Street statement was "yet another cynical attempt by No. 10 to sabotage the negotiations."

"Boris Johnson will never take responsibility for his own failure to put forward a credible deal. His strategy from Day 1 has been for a no-deal Brexit," he said.

Parliament is set to be suspended later Tuesday so a new session can begin next week with a major policy speech from the government.

An earlier attempt by the government to shut down Parliament for five weeks was ruled illegal by the U.K. Supreme Court because it prevented Parliament from scrutinizing the government's Brexit plans. This week's shorter suspension is more routine. Lawmakers will return on Monday for the state opening of Parliament, which will include a speech delivered by Queen Elizabeth that will outline legislative plans.

But most of those plans may be halted by an early election. Both government and the opposition see a national vote as the only way to break Britain's Brexit deadlock, though they disagree on the timing.

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