David Davis has accused the European commission of acting in “bad faith”, just as Brussels rejected claims that its officials had hampered progress in negotiations by cancelling a series of meetings.
Government sources said several meetings had been abruptly called off at short notice by Brussels, despite the urgency of agreeing a transition deal.
EU27 officials hit back, denying that any meetings in the formally published calendar for negotiations had been cancelled. They suggested the UK had sought to “raise extra issues suddenly” – a request that was denied because the commission believed it would breach transparency rules.
The spat over cancelled meetings formed the backdrop for Davis’s strongly worded statement after Thursday’s meeting of the Brexit “war cabinet”.
He described the language used in a commission document on the transition period, published this week, as “discourteous”.
“I have to say I thought that document was hardly a legal document; it was a political document,” Davis told broadcasters. “What we’re about is building an implementation period, which is to build a bridge to a future where we work well together.
“And I do not think it was in good faith to publish a document with frankly discourteous language, and actually implying that they could arbitrarily terminate, in effect, the implementation period. That’s not what the aim of this exercise is. It’s not in good faith, and we think it’s unwise to publish that.”
Davis was irked by the tone of the document, as well as specific proposals that would allow the EU27 to impose trade penalties on the UK without recourse to the European court of justice.
Irritation in the Department for Exiting the European Union was exacerbated by remarks by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, after what they had felt was a good-natured lunch in Downing Street on Monday, that there was “not a moment to lose” in agreeing a transition deal and it was “time to make a choice”.
Davis’s remarks were the first time Britain has clashed so openly with Brussels since Theresa May’s claim during the early stage of last year’s general election campaign that hostile briefings from Brussels were aimed at affecting the result.
May’s inner Brexit cabinet appeared to have made little progress on Thursday in settling the question of what kind of future relationship Britain will seek with the EU27 – though both sides of her divided team said the meeting had been constructive.
Afterwards, it emerged that she has summoned her cabinet to an away day at the PM’s Chequers country retreat to thrash out their differences on Brexit. But a Downing Street source insisted she had received a warm welcome for remarks at the start of Thursday’s meeting.
“The PM told the Brexit cabinet that the government had to be ambitious in the deal we seek. She said her starting point was to aim for something that hadn’t been done before in order to come to a new relationship that will last a generation or more,” the source said.
Negotiations with the EU27 are due to resume on Friday in Brussels, where Barnier is expecting to hear more detail about Britain’s preferred outcome – and will give his own assessment of progress in a press conference.
Asked whether the committee meeting in Downing Street had made progress, Davis said: “The atmosphere is very constructive.”
The Brexit secretary also rubbished the economic assessments that have been privately made available to MPs this week, parts of which have been leaked to the press. He said: “Every single financial forecast and economic forecast has been proven wrong so far – massively wrong. All on the same side, all underestimated the progress of the economy.”
He said the forecasts were “a work in progress” and added: “You wouldn’t drive a car that’s half-finished.”
Economic forecasts of the impact of Brexit have become a fraught topic. The Brexit minister Steve Baker apologised last week after appearing to suggest that the Treasury was fiddling its economic models in order to win the argument for staying in the customs union.
May struck an emollient tone on Thursday after a meeting with Japanese carmakers in which she sought to reassure them about potential disruptions to trade. Downing Street said: “The prime minister set out her vision for an outward-looking, global Britain and the long-term opportunities presented by the modern industrial strategy.”
The Japanese ambassador to the UK, Koji Tsuruoka,said: “Japanese companies are enjoying their operations in the UK and they have also today said they would very much like to continue this successful operation in the UK, which of course is comprised with access to the European market.
“Therefore the question is whether the arrangements that will be reached between the two sides will allow the Japanese companies, who are willing and in some ways determined to continue to operate in the UK, to make that happen.
“If there’s no profitability of continuing operations in [the] UK no private company can continue operations – simple as that. This is all high stakes [and] all of us need to keep [this] in mind.”
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