Britain could face months of wrangling before the European Union is ready to open talks on future trade deal, Brussels’ chief negotiator has warned.
Following a fourth round of talks in the Belgian capital with Brexit Secretary David Davis, Michel Barnier said that while they had made progress, more needed to be done.
Downing Street had been hoping that Theresa’s May’s Florence speech – in which she proposed Britain would continue to pay into EU coffers for a two-year transition period – would unblock the talks and enable them to move on to the second stage, including a free trade agreement.
But at a joint press conference, Mr Barnier said that while the speech had created a “good dynamic” there were still differences which needed to be resolved on future citizens’ rights and the UK’s “divorce bill”.
“I think it is positive that Theresa May’s speech made it possible to unblock the situation to some extent and give a new dynamic to the situation,” he said.
“But we are far from being at the state – and it will take weeks or maybe even months – where we will be able to say, ‘Yes, there has been sufficient progress on the principles of this orderly withdrawal’.”
Mr Barnier said he could not even discuss Mrs May’s proposal for a period of transition until there had been sufficient progress on the issues of the UK’s “orderly withdrawal”.
On the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, he welcomed Britain’s assurance that it would adopt “EU law concepts” but said they had to be enforceable through the European Court of Justice (ECJ) – something the UK is resisting.
“We failed to agree the European Court of Justice must play an indispensable role in ensuring this consistency. This is a stumbling block for the EU,” Mr Barnier said.
He said that there had been progress on the UK’s border with Ireland – another key issue for the EU – but said that on the financial settlement, commitments made by the UK as a member state must be honoured in full.
“I hope that we can clarify that point moving forward and I hope that we can get a clear undertaking on that point,” he said.
Mr Davis said that there had been some “decisive steps” forward, and called for “pragmatism” in resolving the outstanding issues.
“We have made important progress and capitalised on the momentum created by the Prime Minister’s speech,” he said.
“We are working quickly through a number of complex issues but there remain some points where further discussion and pragmatism will be required to reach an agreement.”
On citizens’ rights, Mr Davis said that as a third country outside the EU, Britain could not accept the continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice once it has left the bloc.
He said that while Mrs May had made clear the UK would honour its financial commitments, they were not yet ready to put a figure on the final divorce bill.
While the two sides had discussed the technical issues underpinning the settlement, it would ultimately be a matter for “political agreement”.
“We are not yet at the stage of specifying what those commitments are. That will need to come later,” he said.
With talks set to resume in Brussels in next month, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer warned the October deadline for concluding the first phase of negotiations would now probably be missed.
“This poses a real risk to the British economy and continuing uncertainty for EU and UK citizens,” he said.
“Both sides need urgently to work towards a breakthrough that can move discussions on to how Britain forges a strong, progressive partnership with the EU for the future.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said the EU response showed Mrs May’s speech had been a “flop” while Mr Davis was “dangerously delusional” about the progress the talks were making.
“The greater the uncertainty, the more the economy will flounder and the more vital workers will quit the UK,” he said.
Photos: EC Audiovisual Service/Lukasz Kobus