Boris Johnson experienced an awkward exchange with the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, just before their make-or-break Brexit dinner in Brussels on Wednesday, when she urged him to maintain social distancing
After the prime minister arrived at the commission’s Berlaymont headquarters just after 8pm local time, the two leaders went to pose for the cameras. Johnson asked Von der Leyen if they were taking their masks off. She agreed that they could do so, but told him to “keep distance” as they briefly removed their face coverings, prompting him to quickly step back.
She added: “Then we have to put it back on. You have to put it back on immediately.” The PM responded: “You run a tight ship here, Ursula, and quite right too.”
The pair then headed off for a three-course dinner as talks on a post-Brexit trade deal remained “on a precipice”.
Flanked by his chief negotiator, David Frost, and senior aides, Johnson spelled out the UK’s position, telling Von der Leyen and the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, that he could not accept the terms in a treaty that would tie Britain to EU rules.
EU sources told the Guardian the bloc planned to publish its no-deal contingency plans “very soon indeed” in order to keep planes flying and to protect borders in the event of the talks collapsing irretrievably.
The outcome of the dinner was being anxiously awaited across the continent, amid growing fears of economic and security chaos when the transition period ends in just three weeks’ time.
When the 27 EU heads of state and government meet on Thursday to begin a two-day summit, Von der Leyen is likely to update them on the talks.