Roundup: Johnson tries to assure sheep farmers in Wales as Irish backstop continues to dominate new PM's mission

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LONDON, July 30 (Xinhua) -- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered reassuring words to Welsh sheep farmers Tuesday on the second leg of his round-Britain tour.

But the fate of the border between Northern Ireland and the neighboring Irish Republic dominated the day's developments.

It followed a conversation between Johnson, and the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, the first with his counterpart since becoming prime minister last week.

Communiques about the talks issued in London by 10 Downing Street, and across the Irish Sea in Dublin, gave different messages about the border issue.

As part of the deal brokered between Brussels and Johnson's predecessor Theresa May included a so-called backstop arrangement, an insurance policy to prevent a hard border between the two parts of Ireland.

MPs in the House of Commons rejected a backstop, turning it into the biggest stumbling block for May as she tried and failed, three times, to get the go-ahead for her deal.

Johnson has insisted the Irish backstop must go before talks between his government and the European Union can begin.

Downing Street said in a read-out of Tuesday's phone call between the two leaders: "On Brexit, the Prime Minister made clear that the UK will be leaving the EU on Oct. 31, no matter what.

"He said that in all scenarios, the Government will be steadfast in its commitment to the Belfast Agreement and will never put physical checks or physical infrastructure on the border."

The statement added that Johnson's government will approach any negotiations which take place with determination and energy and in a spirit of friendship, and that his clear preference was to leave the EU with a deal, but it must be one that abolishes the backstop."

In Dublin the Varadkar's office issued its communique of the conversation he had with Johnson.

It said that on the Brexit issue the prime minister emphasised to Johnson that the backstop was a consequence of decisions taken in the UK and by the UK government.

"The Taoiseach (prime minister) explained that the EU was united in its view that the (Brexit) withdrawal agreement could not be reopened."

It added that alternative arrangements could replace the backstop in the future, but so far satisfactory options have yet to be identified and demonstrated.

Political commentators said the two statements pointed to a collision course on Brexit if Johnson sticks to his determination to demand the backstop should go, and Brussels insists it has to stay.

Johnson will be heading to Belfast Wednesday on the next leg of his tour of Britain. He is expected to hold meetings with leaders of the main political parties.

Britain's new prime minister is hoping that a breakthrough can be found to see the resumption of Northern Ireland's own devolved government that has been suspended for over two years.

Varadkar has invited Johnson to pay a visit to Dublin, but there is so far no indication from Downing Street if, or when, Johnson will head to the Irish capital.

In London, the Independent said Johnson's efforts to renegotiate Theresa May's failed EU withdrawal agreement appear to be running into the sand, after the Irish premier delivered a firm rebuff to his demand to ditch the controversial backstop.

"The Taoiseach became the latest in a string of EU leaders to resist the new PM's efforts to secure the removal of the arrangement as the price of a deal on the UK's withdrawal from the EU," the newspaper added.

Back in Wales Johnson assured farmers they will have the support that they need.

He said: "If there are markets that are going to be tricky, we help them to find new markets, we have interventions that aim to support them and their incomes. The most important point is that we don't want tariffs and we don't envisage they will be necessary."

Johnson said it would be better from a common sense point of view, and massively in the interests of the EU to have a zero, tariff zero quota regime of the kind Britain currently has.

Despite his upbeat message to the farming community, Johnson was met with anger with some Welsh farmers accusing him of playing Russian roulette with the sheep industry. The fear is the industry will face 40 percent tariffs on exports if Britain crashed out of Europe without a deal.

Some farmers have warned there could be a mass slaughter of sheep they may be unable to sell because of high tariffs.

Johnson said if Brussels can't compromise Britain will have to get ready for a no-deal exit.

"It is up to the EU, this is their call," he told reporters in Wales.

The prime minister concluded his visit to Wales in the Brecon area where a crucial parliamentary election takes place Thursday.

If the Conservatives lose the House of Commons seat, as polls widely predict, it will leave Johnson's government with a majority of just one. Enditem

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