Britain and the EU face a “furious race against time” to agree a transition deal and future trade relations within the next 10 months, European Council president Donald Tusk has said.
In a letter to the leaders of the 27 remaining EU states ahead of a crucial summit on December 14-15, Mr Tusk urged them to show continued “unity” as Brexit negotiations enter their second phase.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned there could not be any “backtracking” on the divorce deal struck between Theresa May and Brussels.
The summit of European leaders is expected to agree on Friday that talks on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal have made “sufficient progress” for negotiations to move on to the future relationship.
But there are signs of lingering disgruntlement over Brexit Secretary David Davis’s suggestion that the deal last week by the Prime Minister and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on the issues of citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the UK’s £39 billion divorce bill amounted to a “statement of intent” rather than a binding agreement.
Mr Barnier said the EU would be “vigilant” about any attempts by the UK to depart from the deal.
A leaked draft of the guidelines for the second phase of talks, expected to be approved on Friday, warns: “Negotiations in the second phase can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken during the first phase are respected in full and translated faithfully in legal terms as quickly as possible.”
And the European Parliament was set to vote today on cross-party amendments tabled by Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt, warning that Mr Davis’s comment risked “undermining good faith” established in the negotiations and calling on the UK to “fully respect” last week’s deal.
Mr Davis sought to smooth relations with the European institutions, saying he had spoken to Mr Verhofstadt and agreed with him on the importance of last week’s joint report, adding: “Let’s work together to get it converted into legal text as soon as possible.”
The Brexit Secretary had already been forced to row back on his comments at the weekend, which were branded “bizarre” by the Irish Government and led a European Commission spokesman to note that, while the joint report would not be legally binding until enshrined in a formal Withdrawal Agreement, it was regarded in Brussels as “a deal between gentlemen” which was “fully backed and endorsed” by the UK Government.
In his letter to EU27 leaders, Mr Tusk said he regarded the joint report as “a satisfactory result on most issues”.
“For that reason, and based on the recommendation by our chief negotiator, I have tabled guidelines which will signal, if you agree, that we are ready to move to the second phase, which will expand discussions to cover transition and the framework for the future relationship,” he wrote.
“The conclusion of the first phase of negotiations is moderate progress, since we only have 10 months left to determine the transition period and our future relations with the UK.
“This will be a furious race against time, where again our unity will be key. And the experience so far has shown that unity is a sine qua non of an orderly Brexit.”
At a press conference in Brussels, Mr Barnier said: “Even if the European Council does recognise sufficient progress on Friday, we will have a final agreement only if the political commitments taken by Theresa May in the name of the British Government last Friday are respected and we will be vigilant.”
“We will not accept any backtracking from the UK from commitments in the joint report. All our points of agreement our now closed.”
The joint report would be translated into “legally binding and precise language”, with a draft of the withdrawal agreement produced early next year, Mr Barnier said.
After briefing EU ministers he also indicated there was frustration about the UK’s lack of a firm position on what sort of future relationship it wants with the remaining 27 nations.
“Many ministers said that the UK must clarify what it wants,” he told reporters.
Mr Verhofstadt said the UK must “stick to its commitments” and put them into a draft Withdrawal Agreement “as soon as possible” if there is to be progress in the second phase of negotiations.
He has introduced amendments alongside four other European Parliament groups, including the EPP group led by Manfred Weber, a close ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel, as they are concerned about the “unacceptable description by David Davis of this agreement, saying it was merely a statement of intent, rather than a legally enforceable text”.
He added: “In our opinion that is really undermining the trust that is necessary in such negotiations.”
Responding, Mrs May’s official spokesman told a regular Westminster briefing: “The Secretary of State set out yesterday – and the commission agreed with him – that the agreement that was reached last week is a political agreement but that will move forward into a Withdrawal Agreement which will be legally binding.”
“The commitment is clear from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union that we don’t want a hard border. I think everybody understands that.”
Mr Weber said the first stage of the Brexit process was “designed to build trust” but that risked being “destroyed” by Mr Davis over the issue of whether the divorce bill would only be paid if there was a UK-EU trade deal.
“If now David Davis and other top officials in London are again doubting the results of the first phase and announcing that they will hold back the cash payments as long as no trade agreement is concluded then this trust has been destroyed,” Mr Weber said.
“In our view it must be made clear that the agreement which is now on the table is also legally binding for the British Government.
“It should not be gambled with.”