He said Johnson’s current proposal for a Brexit deal was “not serious at all” because it gave a veto over one of the key proposals to one unionist party in Northern Ireland, and would require new customs facilities in “all parts” of Ireland.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, also dismissed Johnson’s plan, though in more polite terms.
He told the European Parliament it “replaces an operational, practical, legal solution [with] one that is simply a temporary solution”.
Barnier added the trade deal that Britain envisioned following Brexit was “very basic” and risked the nation competing with the EU for business by lowering its standards and loosening social, tax and environmental regulations.
In a thinly-veiled swipe at Downing Street’s robust political tactics, Barnier said the EU would “remain calm, we will remain constructive and we will be respectful of the UK and those who lead it… we hope with this attitude on both sides we will be able to come to an agreement”.
This continental backlash on Wednesday came after a series of leaks from Downing Street accused the EU of backtracking on negotiations and playing for time in the hope of a new Brexit referendum.
A long briefing to The Spectator magazine, believed to have come from chief Downing Street strategist Dominic Cummings, predicted “negotiations will probably end this week… we’ll either leave with no deal on 31 October or there will be an election and then we will leave with no deal”.
The briefing laid the blame at the door of Irish Taoiseach (prime minister equivalent) Leo Varadkar, who it claimed “thinks that either there will be a referendum or we win a majority [in an election] but we will just put this offer back on the table so he thinks he can’t lose by refusing to compromise now”.
Verhofstadt said Johnson was playing a “blame game against the European Union, against Ireland, against [German Chancellor] Mrs Merkel, against the British judicial system, against Labour, against the Lib Dems, even against [former British prime minister] Mrs May”.
“The only one who is not to be blamed is Mr Johnson himself, apparently. But all the rest are the source of our problems. That is what is happening today. All those who are not playing his game are ‘traitors’ or a ‘collaborator’, or ‘surrenderers’.”
Johnson is publicly still claiming to be chasing a Brexit divorce deal for October 31 in good faith. On Thursday he and his team were due to meet Varadkar, for what were described by Downing Street as “detailed discussions” over lunch.
The Irish border is, still, the major stumbling block in the way of a Brexit divorce deal. Britain insists Northern Ireland cannot follow EU rules and regulations indefinitely, but the EU is adamant that there must be some special status for the island else a customs border will return, threatening a hard-won peace.
The lunch, in the north-west of England, was reported to be taking place in Liverpool.
This was chosen as “neutral” ground – however it will not be friendly territory for Johnson.
In 2004 The Spectator, edited at the time by Johnson, was one of a number of publications to wrongly attribute blame for the Hillsborough Disaster – a slur that still angers many locals.
Johnson apologised at the time, but has since declined to revisit the apology as Prime Minister.
Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age