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Boris Johnson’s nightmare in Luxembourg was more than just a public embarrassment delivered at the hands of the Grand Duchy’s Xavier Bettel.

The FT on Wednesday morning reports on a chastening encounter over lunch between Mr Johnson, Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker, which one official described as a “penny dropping” moment for the prime minister over what it really means to replace the Irish backstop.

According to an account of the meeting, the prime minister was told by his EU counterparts in no uncertain terms that the UK’s plan to replace the backstop by allowing Northern Ireland to stick to common EU rules on food and livestock (known as SPS) was not enough to prevent customs checks on the vast majority of goods that cross the Irish border.

At that point, a befuddled Mr Johnson turned to David Frost, his chief negotiator, and Stephen Barclay, Brexit secretary, and said: “So you’re telling me the SPS plan doesn’t solve the customs problem?”
Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel gestures during a news conference after his meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Luxembourg, September 16, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

The exchange, according to one EU official, was part of an abrupt “learning curve” for Mr Johnson in his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Barnier and Mr Juncker since he took office.

Another official describes the prime minister gradually “slumping” in his chair as the reality of the UK’s negotiating position and the limited time left to strike an agreement dawned on him. “He wasn’t used to hearing it”, added the official.

Mr Juncker told his college of commissioners in Strasbourg on Tuesday that the Luxembourg lunch was the first time that “Boris Johnson understood the meaning of the single market”.