Brussels – EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has warned that the European Union and Britain have made no substantial breakthroughs in their latest round of talks, with the key financial settlement a major stumbling bloc.
The third round of talks concluded on August 31 with Barnier and his British counterpart David Davis both underlining persistent differences despite time running down on achieving a comprehensive divorce deal.
“This week provided useful clarifications… but we did not get any decisive progress on the central subjects,” Barnier told a joint press conference with Davis in Brussels.
Despite the split, the tone was more positive than when the talks began Monday, when Barnier told a grim-faced Davis that Britain must start negotiating “seriously” if it wanted to talk about its future relationship with Brussels.
Davis on Thursday reiterated his call for the European side to show more flexibility, especially on the divorce bill the UK must pay as a price for leaving the bloc.
Britain’s Brexit settlement is estimated at up to 100 billion euros in Brussels but at just 40 billion euros in London, according to reports there.
“The EU has made a claim on the UK taxpayer, undoubtedly a large number, on the basis of what it says are our legal obligations. The proper approach to this is to go through it line by line,” Davis said.
“We are a country which meets its international obligations,” Davis added firmly.
For his part, Barnier, said “EU taxpayers at 27 (member states) should not pay for obligations taken at 28.”
The EU has longstanding commitments, agreed to by Britain as a member state, such as in loans for Ukraine or the African Development Bank, and London cannot not simply abandon them.
But after this week’s talks, Barnier said, “it is clear the UK does not feel legally obliged to honour these obligations after its departure.”
Some progress on Ireland
The European Union says there must be “sufficient progress” in three key areas — EU citizen rights, Northern Ireland’s border and the exit bill — before it will consider post-Brexit arrangements.
EU leaders will review the talks in October to see how far they have got and whether it is possible to then take up London’s demand for negotiations on a free trade deal but there is growing speculation the issue will be put back to December.
Davis insisted that the two strands should be discussed in parallel since they are part and parcel of Brexit overall, but Barnier reiterated again that the divorce deal must be agreed first.
He said highly sensitive discussions on the fate of Northen Ireland’s border with the Irish Republic were “fruitful” with “substantial progress” achieved.
As for the post-Brexit rights of more than three million EU citizens living in Britain, and the more than one million Britons in Europe, there had been some clarifications, Barnier said.
The EU bottom line remained however that the European Court of Justice was the ultimate guardian of such rights, “a point on which we still disagree today,” Barnier said.
All in all, “we are from having sufficient progress to recommend that (EU leaders) launch talks about the future relationship,” said Barnier, a former French foreign minister and EU commissioner.
Countdown to March 2019
Britain is on a countdown to leave the EU by the end of March 2019, following last year’s shock referendum vote.
To negotiate its departure, British and EU officials agreed to meet each month for four days in Brussels leading up to the October review.
The talks take place against a backdrop of political manoeuvering in Britain, with the opposition Labour Party now backing a “soft” Brexit whereby the country remains in the EU’s single market for a transition period.
Prime Minister Theresa May has said she wants Britain unequivocally out of the single market but her position has been crippled since she lost her parliamentary majority in June and her cabinet is sharply divided over the Brexit options.
Barnier noted that it was Britain which had opted to leave the EU and so it had to bear the consequences — “Brexit means Brexit,” he said, copying a favourite May phrase.
The EU’s job is to ensure that the cost — political, economic, social — to the bloc’s citizens is minimal and that their interests are protected, he said.
By Bryan McManus and Alex Pigman