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Noise but no breakthrough as Johnson, Juncker talk Brexit deal

LUXEMBOURG (AP) — Boris Johnson was booed by protesters and berated by Luxembourg’s leader on a visit to the tiny nation Monday for his first face-to-face talks with European Union chief Jean-Claude Juncker about securing an elusive Brexit deal.

On a day of commotion and conflicting signals, Johnson pulled out of a news conference because of noisy anti-Brexit demonstrators, leaving Luxembourg’s prime minister standing alone next to an empty lectern as he addressed the media.

Still, Johnson insisted there was a strong chance of securing a divorce agreement before Britain is due to leave the 28-nation bloc in just over six weeks.

“Yes there is a good chance of a deal. Yes, I can see the shape of it,” Johnson asserted at a separate appearance before reporters at the British ambassador’s residence.

EU leaders were far more skeptical.

After a two-hour lunch meeting over fish and risotto in Juncker’s native Luxembourg, the European Commission said that Britain had yet to offer any “legally operational” solutions to the problem of keeping goods and people flowing freely across the Irish border, the main roadblock to a deal.

“Such proposals have not yet been made,” the Commission said in a statement, adding that officials “will remain available to work 24/7.”

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who also met Johnson, said the British leader needed to “stop speaking and act.”

“We need more than just words,” he said. “We need a legally operable text to work on as soon as possible.”

Johnson says the U.K. will leave the EU on the scheduled date of Oct. 31 with or without a Brexit divorce deal. He hopes to strike a revised agreement with the bloc at an EU summit on Oct. 17-18, in time for an orderly departure. The agreement made by his predecessor, Theresa May, was rejected three times by Britain’s Parliament, prompting her to resign.

The key sticking point to a Brexit deal is the so-called “backstop,” an insurance policy in May’s agreement intended to guarantee an open border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland. That is vital both to the local economy and to Northern Ireland’s peace process.

British Brexit supporters oppose the backstop because it keeps the U.K. bound to EU trade rules, limiting its ability to forge new free trade agreements around the world after Brexit.

Britain has suggested the backstop could be replaced by “alternative arrangements” — a mix of technology to replace border checks and a common area for agricultural products and animals covering the whole island of Ireland.

Despite the EU’s frustration at the lack of detail, Juncker and Johnson agreed to ramp up the pace of talks, with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and U.K. Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay getting involved.

“Over the last couple of weeks there’s been a lot of work — papers have been shared — but we are now in the stage where we have to start really accelerating the work,” Johnson said. “That was the agreement today.”