The UK’s approach to Brexit is nostalgic, unrealistic, and undermined by a lack of trust, the EU’s chief negotiator has said, in his strongest criticism of the UK’s stance at the talks so far.
In a tense press conference alongside his British counterpart David Davis after the third round of exit talks in Brussels, Michel Barnier was scathing about the UK’s approach to the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and hopes for future access to the single market.
He said some of the recent British proposals showed “a sort of nostalgia in the form of specific requests which would amount to continuing to enjoy the benefits of the single market and EU membership without actually being part of it”.
His remarks drew an acid response from Davis, the UK’s Brexit secretary, who remarked that Barnier should not “confuse a belief in the free market with nostalgia.”
Barnier, who said that he had been left impatient by the British approach, complained that there had been “no decisive progress” – and was again contradicted by Davis, who insisted that progress had been “concrete”.
The sharp disagreements between the two sides, which were particularly focused on the so-called divorce bill, exposed the scale of the gap that remains after the third round of talks. That inertia was underlined by a leading figure in the European parliament, who called the UK’s approach “intolerable” and claimed that the talks were being used by the Conservative party for political purposes.
Trust between the two sides was still lacking on the divorce bill and on the future of citizens, Barnier said. “How can we build trust and start discussing the future relationship? We have to address these things together seriously,” he said.
He gave a stark warning that the single market would not be undermined by Brexit, saying it was impossible for an individual country to shape the market’s regulations from the outside.
Davis was firm in his insistence that progress had been made on important points. “I mean, Michel referred to one, but I think there’s been more than that,” he said.
Davis also vented frustration at the EU’s stance on financial matters and its refusal to allow further discussions on the future relationship between the two sides. “It’s fair to say across the piece we have a very different legal stance,” he said. “I think we have succeeded in building mutual understanding, but it is also clear that there are still significant differences to be bridged.”
At the conclusion of the four-day talks, which ended in a stalemate over money, the tension was palpable. In a thinly veiled message to the British government, Barnier said anyone who thought they could divide the EU on Brexit was “wasting their time”.
A few minutes later, Davis shook his head as Barnier said Home Office mistakes in sending out deportation letters showed why the European court of justice had to guarantee the rights of 3.5 million EU citizens in the UK.
Both threw back the other side’s slogans in an effort to gain the upper hand. Davis repeated his call for the EU to be “flexible and imaginative” in solving Brexit problems – a phrase from the EU’s Brexit guidelines. Barnier retorted that “Brexit means Brexit”, when he set out why the UK’s decision to leave the single market would have consequences.
Referring to his view of the UK’s nostalgia, he said: “The UK wants to take back control, wants to adopt its own standards and regulations, but it also wants to have these standards recognised automatically in the EU. This is simply impossible. You cannot be outside the single market and shape its legal order,” he said.
Barnier, a keen hillwalker, said he had the calm of a mountaineer. “I often hear that I am frustrated and angry. I have never shown frustration, I have shown impatience, I have never shown anger, I have shown determination.”
Behind the scenes, negotiators made limited progress on some technical areas on citizens’ rights and the Irish border, but neither budged on the big sticking point of money.
Britain is fighting EU claims that it should continue making payments into the EU budget until 2021, almost two years after Brexit day, in line with an agreement made by the former prime minister David Cameron.
Davis said Britain was a country that met its obligations but “those obligations have got to be well specified, they’ve got to be real”. However, he conceded that the UK also had “moral obligations” as well as legal ones, without adding further details. The UK has argued that many of the EU’s demands have no legal basis, without setting out what they think they are liable for.
Barnier said the EU delegation was prepared to “step up and intensify the rhythm of the negotiations”, though he dismissed suggestions that talks could become more frequent.
He was clear that the standoff over money diminished chances that he would recommend to EU leaders that Britain be allowed to move on to trade talks. “The current state of progress means we are quite far from being able to say sufficient progress has taken place – not far enough for me to be able to say to the European council that we can start to discuss the future relationship,” he said.
He has the backing of senior MEPs in the European parliament, who have threatened to veto any Brexit deal without a good offer to secure citizens’ rights.
Elmar Brok, one of the European parliament’s Brexit leads, accused the British government of treating the talks as a political popularity contest before the Tory party conference.
“The process of the British negotiation delegation begins to become intolerable. These negotiations should not be misused as a party congress,” said Brok, Brexit spokesman for the largest centre-right group in the European parliament.
Davis said there was an imperative to begin talks on the future relationship. “We can only resolve some of these issues with an eye on how the new partnership between us will work in the future,” he said. “This is not about skipping ahead or trying to reopen previous discussions, it is about pragmatically driving the progress we all want to see.”
Davis said the UK had examined the details of the EU’s position on the financial settlement. “We have a duty to our taxpayers to scrutinise it properly,” he said.
However, he said, the UK response would be the same as laid out when it triggered article 50 to start the exit process, namely meeting financial obligations “in accordance with the law and in the spirit of our continuing partnership”.
There was some progress on Ireland, with Davis saying there had been a good discussion on maintaining the open border zone between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
A senior EU official said there had been “reassuring messages” on border controls, but made it clear there was a wide gulf on many other Irish issues.
Informed sources say Ireland has insisted it will “not be used as a test bed or a petri dish” for Britain’s future negotiations on its final customs and trading relationship with the EU. Under British proposals, a frictionless border could be achieved if small businesses were exempt from customs controls that would apply if the UK mirrored the EU regime of veterinary and other trading standard checks.
The UK government has suggested larger companies would have pre-approved “truster trader status”, avoiding the need for checks as their freight passes in or out of Northern Ireland. EU officials dismissed this as a non-starter, saying such a concept was predicated on the EU suspending the application of its own laws, which it did not consider “a sound basis” for progress on the border issue.
The Brussels talks coincided with a visit by Britain’s chancellor, Philip Hammond, to Ireland. The Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, urged Hammond to “listen to those who stand to be most negatively impacted by Brexit across these islands”.
There was an extra frisson to the Brussels press conference as it began minutes after Tony Blair, a leading opponent to Brexit, met the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, in another room in the same building.
An EU spokesman said the two men “exchanged views on a wide number of issues of European and international interest”. The commission had previously said there was “no conspiracy” about the timing of the visit.