Several of Europe's elected politicians reacted with disdain to Boris Johnson's decision to suspend U.K. Parliament, but behind the scenes some officials think it might not increase the chances of a no-deal Brexit — and could even lessen them.
Mr. Johnson said he plans to close Parliament for almost five weeks, until a Queen's Speech on Oct. 14. That's four days before a crucial European Union summit, which could effectively be the last chance to strike a Brexit deal, and just under three weeks until Mr. Johnson has vowed to take the U.K. out of the bloc whether an agreement is struck or not.
The move prompted Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who led the European Parliament's Brexit work, to describe the U.K. leader's decision as "sinister." Nathalie Loiseau, former French European affairs minister, suggested British democracy was suffering from a "disease."
But in private, EU officials say Mr. Johnson's maneuver won't reduce the chances of the two sides working together to try to find a compromise.
Optimism in European diplomatic circles increased slightly over the past few days after the British prime minister met German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Officials from the U.K. and the EU have discussed ways to revise the so-called Irish border backstop mechanism, which Mr. Johnson said he can never accept in its current form.
While there's a long way to go and there's been no proposal presented that's acceptable to both sides, officials in Brussels — speaking on the condition on anonymity — don't rule out an agreement in the coming weeks. They are working on a revised backstop model, which, while doing the same thing, might be more palatable to British politicians.
EU officials are wary of speculating about the consequences of the suspension of Parliament because they see it as a purely domestic U.K. political issue. But they say it won't mean work at diplomatic level between London and Brussels will cease.
Negotiations between the two sides will "intensify" over the coming weeks, a U.K. government spokesperson in Brussels said Wednesday after a meeting between David Frost, Mr. Johnson's EU envoy, and European Brexit officials.
It's possible the suspension will mean that when lawmakers return with so little time before Brexit day, they will feel under more pressure to approve a new deal. That could mean Mr. Johnson gets away with a deal that doesn't include as many radical changes as he wants, one official said.
A second official said that the EU's position on the backstop and other Brexit issues is completely unaffected by the British parliamentary process. European negotiators weren't expecting any decisive movement until late October, and Wednesday's decision confirms their expectations.
But it's a high stakes move by Mr. Johnson. A third EU official closely involved in the Brexit process struck a more pessimistic tone saying that if the premier was determined to go for a hard break, he was now much more able to.
Much rests on the Irish government which, so far, is sticking to the line that any wholesale changes to the Brexit deal — that was originally agreed between Mr. Johnson's predecessor Theresa May and the EU in November — is impossible.
The backstop is "currently" the only viable solution to the border issue, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Wednesday at a conference. In any case, it's too late for any renegotiation before the Oct. 31 departure date, he said.
"Even if we wanted to do that, which we don't, we can't do it in six or 10 weeks," he said. While the EU is open to explore alternative arrangements, they must achieve the same objectives as the backstop, he added.