LONDON: The European Commission on Monday issued a sharp rebuke of the UK's Brexit strategy and declared that it is still waiting for a legally operational solution from the Boris Johnson led government on the controversial Irish backstop issue to finalise a so-called divorce agreement.
The statement followed a working lunch in Luxembourg between Johnson and European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker amid ongoing uncertainty around Britain's impending exit from the 28-member economic bloc by the October 31 deadline.
While Downing Street described the meeting as "constructive", the EU side said no proposals had been put forward to replace the backstop which remains a major stumbling block to achieving a credible withdrawal agreement.
"President Juncker recalled that it is the UK's responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions that are compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement," the European Commission said in its strongly-worded statement.
"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 statement noted, adding that the Commission would "remain available to work 24/7" to keep working on a deal.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who was an observer at the meeting also attended by EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier, later addressed a press conference to express his frustration at the lack of progress in the Brexit talks.
"The UK has always been a close friend of Luxembourg. That will not change because of Brexit. But people need clarity and certainty. You cannot hold a country hostage for party political reasons," said a visibly angry Bettel.
"The clock is ticking. The EU will not accept any proposal that undermines the Good Friday agreement. The Irish are part of the EU family," he said, in reference to the backstop which is an insurance policy seen as non-negotiable by the EU to ensure an open border between EU member-country Ireland and UK territory Northern Ireland after Brexit.
Johnson has branded the backstop "undemocratic" and said it needs to be removed from any deal to be struck with the EU.
He reiterated his stance to not seek any further extension to the October 31 deadline, despite being bound by parliamentary law to seek an extension unless a deal is in place by the time the EU meets for its European Council meeting on October 17-18.
"The prime minister reconfirmed his commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and his determination to reach a deal with the backstop removed, that UK parliamentarians could support.
The prime minister also reiterated that he would not request an extension and would take the UK out of the EU on the October 31," the Downing Street said in a statement following the meeting, Johnson's first major face-to-face interaction with EU leaders since taking charge as PM in July.
Over the weekend, Johnson had been quoted as saying that the UK would break out of its "manacles" like the cartoon superhero The Incredible Hulk with or without a deal.
Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo, who portrays the character of the Incredible Hulk on the big screen, responded by saying the Hulk "only fights for the good of the whole".
"Mad and strong can also be dense and destructive. The Hulk works best when he is in unison with a team, and is a disaster when he is alone," Ruffalo said on Twitter.