The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said the UK appears to be going backwards on agreeing a Brexit financial settlement, as hopes of an autumn divorce deal hit rock bottom.
Speaking as the EU published its latest Brexit position papers, Barnier said he was disappointed with the UK position he had heard at the latest round of negotiations. “It seems to be backtracking on the original commitment of the UK to honour its international commitments,” he said. “There is a problem of confidence here.”
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This problem was a moral one, he said. “You cannot have 27 countries paying for what was decided by 28.”
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, acknowledged in July that the UK had obligations to the EU from its 44 years of membership, but his officials spent last week’s negotiating round dismantling the EU’s calculations without offering any clues on what the UK might pay.
There were more harsh words for the UK on Thursday from the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, who warned that if the government adopted the immigration policies contained in a Home Office document leaked to the Guardian this week, it would make a transition deal impossible.
“As a sovereign country, post-Brexit and after any transition period, the UK will be free to execute its own discriminatory immigration policy, no matter how economically damaging this might be,” the MEP said in a statement released to the Guardian. “However, a number of the leaked proposals would breach EU free movement law if implemented during any transition period, for example the proposal to discriminate between ‘high-skilled’ and ‘low-skilled’ workers.”
EU diplomats say they have neither the time nor the inclination to negotiate a bespoke transition deal for the UK. This means the UK would have to follow European rules on free movement of people if it wanted to remain in the single market for a period after Brexit day in March 2019.
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Barnier did not comment on the leaked Home Office document, saying he wanted to work in “a serious fashion”. He said debate on transition arrangements in the UK was evolving and he called on London to make clear its vision. “The UK needs to tell us what it wants and we will see what is acceptable while respecting the rules,” he said.
Barnier did, however, praise Davis for his professionalism after it emerged that the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, had questioned the Brexit secretary’s commitment to the talks.
Juncker had voiced concern about “the stability and accountability of the UK negotiator and his apparent lack of involvement” in Brexit talks at a meeting of top commission officials on 12 July, according to minutes released on Thursday. The discussion took place before the second round of Brexit talks, when concern was running high in Brussels that the UK would not acknowledge its debts to the EU. At that time officials were also in the dark about how often Davis would attend the talks in Brussels.
Describing how he had known Davis for 20 years, Barnier said they had cordial relations and defended him against the charge that he was not spending enough time at the EU negotiating table.
Turning to the substance, however, he made it clear he saw the UK position as unrealistic: “It will not be possible for a third country to combine the benefits of the Norway model with the weak constraints of the Canada model,” he said.
Barnier also said he was worried about the UK’s proposals on the Irish border, because London was asking the EU to suspend its own laws on the customs union and the single market. “The UK wants to use Ireland as a kind of test case for future EU customs relations. This will not happen.”
A UK government spokesman welcomed the commission’s paper on the border issue between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, “which continues to demonstrate that the UK and EU’s objectives on this issue are closely aligned”.
The government again appealed to the EU to be flexible: “Unilateral UK flexibility will not be sufficient to meet our shared objectives, which is why we welcome the commission’s continued recognition of the need for flexible and imaginative solutions.”
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The EU negotiator’s evident exasperation with UK “backsliding” reduces already low expectations that Brexit talks will be able to move on to trade after October.
Tensions over money were also evident in the newly released commission minutes.
Barnier told the European commission in July that “the UK’s real aim seemed to be to use past debts as a means of buying future access to parts of the single market, something which the union could not accept”, according to the document.
A former president of the European council, Herman Van Rompuy, said on Thursday that the chances of Brexit talks moving to trade after October were “in the neighbourhood of zero”.
European leaders will be asked to decide if the UK has made sufficient progress on the Brexit divorce issues in October. If they deem that the UK has fallen short of their expectations on the Brexit financial settlement, EU citizens’ rights and the status of Ireland, talks will not progress to trade.
Van Rompuy told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he was not confident of a deal by the end of the year. “Let’s hope that we have a breakthrough. The latest declarations are not reassuring, but let’s hope,” he said.
Barnier’s statement on Thursday was his first in public since the Guardian published the Home Office paper setting out a possible blueprint for post-Brexit immigration policy.
The document has had a mixed reaction in Brussels, ranging from anger at the perceived attempt to restrict rights of EU nationals, to more detached feelings that the policy does not concern Brussels.
But Verhofstadt said some proposals would cause “further uncertainty, distress and anxiety” to 3.5 million EU citizens in the UK. Restricting the rights of EU family members to enter the UK is deemed especially problematic.
Others viewed the draft as emblematic of the UK’s unfriendliness to the rest of Europe. Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian Green MEP, who sits on the parliament’s Brexit steering group, told the Guardian the proposals would “poison the atmosphere even more” and make it harder to strike a post-Brexit agreement “if the same kind of attitudes persist”.
“The United Kingdom sits 30km away from a continent that is unified politically by the European Union. And that is a reality imposed by geography. It is in both parties’ interest to have the most fluid possible functioning among us and to be as open as possible to each other.”