Early talks on post-Brexit trade deal 'increasingly unlikely'

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The Brexit negotiations are faltering and the UK government’s hopes of opening talks on a future trade deal with the EU this autumn look increasingly likely to be dashed, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has reported back to the bloc’s member states.

In the starkest sign yet of the parlous state of the negotiations, Barnier told ambassadors to the EU that the British government had so far been unable to provide sufficient clarity on its positions during the last week of talks, leaving him pessimistic about the future.

The European council, whose members comprise the member states, is due to rule at the end of October on whether sufficient progress has been made on the issues of citizens’ rights, the UK’s divorce bill and the border in Ireland, in order for negotiations to be widened to include the future relationship.

Barnier, a former French minister, told the member states representatives at a meeting on Wednesday the UK had not matched the EU in providing clear position papers on the key issues, including the UK’s divorce bill on leaving.

One EU source told the Guardian that Barnier said if the negotiations continued as they had been going sufficient progress would not be made.

The source added: “He didn’t mention any particular area, it was more general, but he said the UK was not providing enough position papers and the chances were not big of sufficient progress being made by October if it continues as it has.”

A second EU official said Brussels feared Britain was intending to talk tough on certain issues around citizens rights, only to offer a compromise at the last minute in return for some leeway on the financial settlement. “That’s why Barnier wants the issues of the citizens rights and the financial settlement done at the same time, not one after the other”, the source said.

Senior Whitehall figures suggested, however, that the British were unlikely to cave in to the EU’s demands by providing detail on the financial settlement this summer.

The UK negotiating team further feel that they do not need to provide matching position papers in order for talks to be successful. “That might be what they want, but that’s not what is going to happen”, the source said.

Such is the standoff it is looking increasingly likely that, at the very least, extra negotiating days will need to be added to the three further rounds scheduled before the council meeting on the 19 October. It is understood that Barnier would be open to such an arrangement.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Exiting the EU insisted the government remained confident about enough progress being made for talks on a future trade deal to begin after the summer.

“Negotiations to leave the EU are under way and we have already made good progress on a number of issues,” she said. “As the secretary of state said, it is important that both sides demonstrate a dynamic and flexible approach to these negotiations.

“Government officials are working at pace and we are confident we will have made sufficient progress by October to advance the talks to the next phase. On the financial settlement, we have been clear that we recognise the UK has obligations to the EU and that the EU also has obligations to the UK.”

Yet in a clear indication of the frustration in Brussels at the UK’s stance, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, who was also briefed by Barnier on the recent negotiating round in Brussels, has already publicly warned the British that there needed to be progress in all three key areas if talks were to widen. “If we want negotiations to succeed within the limited time we have, progress on more detailed content will have to be made sooner rather than later,” he said. “The European parliament cannot be clear enoigh that sufficient progress means ‘across the board’, and not just one or two areas.”

At a press conference following the last talks, Barnier had said that information on the UK’s position on the divorce bill was “indispensable”. It has been mooted that the so-called divorce bill could be as big as £75bn, although in response to such reports the foreign secretary Boris Johnson told the Commons that Brussels could “go whistle”.

The European parliament is intending to issues its own judgement on whether the UK has passed the threshold of ‘sufficient progress’ in September or October.

The Liberal Democrats’ Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake, said: “The Brexiteers’ promise of a quick and easy trade deal have been dashed by our government’s own incompetence. The country is now hurtling towards a disastrous Brexit, but Conservative ministers are busy squabbling about chicken. It’s crucial we give people a way out of this mess by giving them a final vote with a chance to remain in the EU.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Daniel Boffey and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Thursday 27th July 2017 13.11 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010