Sept. 18 (UPI) -- The European Union said Wednesday it's open to Britain leaving the alliance without the key Irish "backstop," as long as Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government presents an alternative in writing before the Oct. 31 deadline.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said any alternative to the provision -- which ensures a "soft" border for trade on the barrier between Ireland and Northern Ireland -- must be "operable."
Speaking Wednesday at a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Juncker said a meeting with Johnson this week was "positive." No real progress has been made, however, toward reaching an agreeable pact. Juncker called the prospect of Britain leaving without an agreement a "palpable" risk."
The backstop has been the primary obstacle in achieving an agreement. Former Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated a deal with the EU but lawmakers in London did not support it largely because they said it didn't do enough to protect the backstop.
Juncker also said Wednesday Michel Barnier, Britain's chief exit negotiator, will be involved in a new round of talks -- and the bloc will stand firm on legally-binding guarantees in areas of customs so it can control products arriving in Ireland.
"I told Boris Johnson that I have no emotional attachment to the backstop," Juncker said. "But I made clear that I do have an intimate commitment to its objectives. I invited the prime minister to make concrete, operational, textual proposals on alternative ways in which backstop goals can be met."
The Irish backstop would keep Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, in the European Union if no agreement is reached as a way to avoid a hard border.