The EU’s chief negotiator on Britain’s exit from the bloc is “concerned” about the progress of talks, as senior sources dismissed reports of a Brexit climbdown led by France.
Michel Barnier urged the UK to start “negotiating seriously” as the third round of talks with the UK’s Brexit secretary, David Davis, began in Brussels on Monday. “To be honest, I am concerned. Time passes quickly,” he said.
Standing alongside Davis, Barnier welcomed the British government’s position papers, which he said had been read “very carefully” in Brussels. But he made clear he wanted the government to come clean on its position on money, while also suggesting some of the UK papers lacked clarity.
Davis will refuse to spell out what he think the UK could be liable for, despite having admitted Britain has “obligations” from its 44 years of EU membership.
In frank language, Barnier made clear he thought this was not good enough: “We need UK positions on all separation issues. This is necessary to make sufficient progress. We must start negotiating seriously. We need UK papers that are clear in order to have constructive negotiations. And the sooner we remove the ambiguity the sooner we will be in a position to discuss the future relationship and to a transitional period.”
European leaders have agreed unanimously that the UK must make sufficient progress on three separation issues before talks can progress to trade. Barnier’s mandate means the UK has to reach an agreement on the financial settlement, the Irish border and EU citizens’ rights before discussing a future relationship with the EU.
Davis has repeatedly said this timetable is “inflexible”. As he entered the talks, he repeated his call for the EU to show “imagination” about the organisation of the talks.
“For the United Kingdom, the week ahead is about driving forward the technical discussion ahead across all the issues. We want to lock in the points where we agree, unpick the areas where we disagree and make further progress on the whole range of issues. In order to do that we require flexibility and imagination from both sides.”
Davis was due to leave Brussels on Monday night to attend government meetings the next day. More than 100 British officials are expected to take part in this third round of talks, dedicated to the three divorce issues and technical problems such as the status of goods crossing borders after Brexit day.
Before the negotiations started sources at the Élysée poured cold water on suggestions of a possible Brexit climbdown by the EU led by France. On Monday it was reported that France favoured beginning trade talks in October, potentially breaking the deadlock over the timetable.
According to the report, France had proposed the UK pay €10bn (£9.25bn) a year into the EU budget during a three-year transitional period and continue to accept EU law. The UK would then be allowed to progress to trade talks in October. Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform, gave a similar account in a Guardian comment article, saying that “hardliners” around Barnier were blocking this option.
But sources at the Élysée dismissed the notion. The “allegations” in the Telegraph were not based on anything and did not correspond to reality, said one source, who added that France “fully supports” the mandate that EU leaders had given to Barnier.
A senior official said the claim was not serious. “I don’t believe it for a second,” he said. At a recent meeting ahead of this latest round of talks, the French had been “extremely tough” and were saying “we should strictly abide by the sequencing”.
The story surprised Brussels watchers because France played a leading role in drawing up the EU negotiating mandate. Barnier is also a former French government minister, who was handpicked by François Hollande, the former French president, to lead the Brexit negotiations.
However the €10bn figure corresponds to the black hole in the EU’s annual accounts after Brexit. Moreover EU officials are studying whether Britain could continue to pay into the EU budget until 2020. This is seen as one way of sweetening the Brexit divorce bill as the UK could present it as the price of single-market access, while the EU could avoid the headache of finding new money to replace the British contribution.
The UK is due to leave the EU in March 2019, 21 months before the end of the seven-year budget agreed with David Cameron. But the budget payments would not cover all of Britain’s liabilities, in the eyes of EU negotiators. Brussels thinks the total Brexit bill is much higher, with estimates of about €75bn, including the UK’s share of pension liabilities and unpaid bills.
So far EU member states agree that the UK should pay for what are deemed “British liabilities” and are in no rush for a divorce deal in October. One EU diplomat said many countries were ready to wait until the end of the year for the divorce deal, rather than the early autumn as the British had hoped. “We are ready to let the October deadline pass by.”