LUXEMBOURG — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, drew battle lines before their first in-person meeting in Luxembourg on Monday, with the two sides putting out dissonant messages as an October 31 Brexit deadline approaches.
Time is running increasingly short to reach a deal on the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union, and there have been few outward signs of progress to suggest that the two sides will find a way to sort out the thorniest of issues — the question of how to handle the Irish border in a post-Brexit Europe.
“We do not know what the British want in detail, precisely and accurately, and we are still waiting for alternative proposals,” Mr. Juncker said on German public radio on Sunday. Brexit, he said, was a “continental tragedy.”
On the British side, there were mixed signals. A British official said that progress was being made, but Mr. Johnson also chose some unexpected imagery to make clear that he believes Britain would be just fine if it left the European Union at the Oct. 31 deadline without a deal.
Speaking to the Mail on Sunday, Mr. Johnson said that he would ignore Parliament and refuse to seek an extension if there is no agreement. He then drove the point home by comparing his country to a famous comic book character known for turning big and green when angry.
“The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets,” Mr. Johnson told the Mail on Sunday. “Hulk always escaped, no matter how tightly bound in he seemed to be — and that is the case for this country. We will come out on October 31 and we will get it done.”
Mr. Johnson’s comments were quickly rebutted by, among others, Mark Ruffalo, the actor who played the Hulk in a series of movies for over a decade.
“Boris Johnson forgets that the Hulk only fights for the good of the whole,” Mr. Ruffalo wrote on Twitter. “Mad and strong can also be dense and destructive. The Hulk works best when he is in unison with a team, and is a disaster when he is alone.”
At stake are the terms under which Britain will leave — or crash out of — the European Union. Mr. Johnson has said that he will not carry out a deal negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May, and he has homed in the issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland, which is a European Union member, and Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain.
Neither side wants to see the return of a hard border between the two, which would be disruptive to trade and Ireland’s economy, and it also represents a step backward to the peace process that has brought stability to the island. To ensure that the border remains open, European Union officials have been insisting on what is commonly known as a “backstop,” an insurance mechanism to ensure that goods continue to flow freely.
Mr. Johnson has rejected such an approach, but European Union officials say that he has not put forward a credible alternative, despite the bloc’s negotiators signaling that they are open to new ideas as long as the border remains “soft” — namely free of physical checks for goods or animals being transferred between the two sides.
There have been signs that there is a way out: Mr. Johnson is weighing a proposal that would put parts of the Northern Ireland economy into an “all-Ireland” zone. That would presumably subject Northern Ireland to European Union rules and standards, even as it remains a part of the United Kingdom, while preserving the open border.
Critics say, however, that this would leave Northern Ireland as a de facto member of the European Union, and in the process fragment the United Kingdom.
The two men were scheduled to share a lunch of escargot, salmon and cheese in the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, where Mr. Juncker was born, before getting down to business, officials said.
The British secretary of state for Brexit, Stephen Barclay, and the chief Brexit negotiator for the European Commission, Michel Barnier, are scheduled to meet in parallel to the leaders’ lunch.
Mr. Johnson will meet with Prime Minister Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg after lunch with Mr. Juncker and then speak to the press later on Monday.
But the view from the British side has been that, while a deal is desirable, it’s not essential in order to follow through on Brexit, with Mr. Johnson saying he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than have another extension.
For the European Union, a no-deal Brexit is seen an avoidable train-wreck, a disaster scenario that could cause irreparable damage and cost billions to both Britain and the bloc.
The European Union’s economy is in a fragile state, while a no-deal Brexit would likely cause all kinds of problems for Britain, where the government’s own scenarios have warned of shortages of food and medicine, problems for manufacturing, and possibly even civil unrest.
“There are many in the U.K. who are in favor of a no-deal, without considering what the implications — both on the islands and on the continent — would be,” Mr. Juncker told German radio.
“It would be a mess, and we will need years to get things right again,” he added, before appealing to British sense of patriotism to avert it. “If you love your country — I assume that there are still patriots in the U.K. — you do not want to wish your country such a fate.”
The two men have spoken twice on the phone since Mr. Johnson became prime minister, but have not met face-to-face. Both are known for having big personalities and charisma, especially in closed-door settings where their traditional brand of relationship politics has currency.