The EU told Britain bluntly yesterday that it had to get serious about the Brexit negotiations and address key separation issues first before any talks about its future relationship with the bloc.
The European Union says there has to be “sufficient progress” in three key areas – EU citizen rights, Northern Ireland’s border and the exit bill – before it will turn to post-Brexit arrangements, possibly beginning in October.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier initially exchanged pleasantries with his British counterpart David Davis but swiftly changed tone to demand London come up with detailed responses to Brussels’ positions.
“To be honest, I am concerned, time passes quickly,” Barnier told reporters ahead of a third round of Brexit talks in Brussels. “We welcome the (recent) UK government papers and we have read them very carefully ... but we must start negotiating seriously.
“We need UK papers that are clear. The sooner we remove the ambiguity the sooner we will be in a position to discuss the future relationship and a transitional period.”
For his part, Davis read a statement issued earlier in the day in which he said Britain had been working hard on its position papers.
Without replying directly to Barnier’s comments, Davis said the British documents were “products of the hard work and detailed thinking that has been going on behind the scenes not just the last few weeks but the last 12 months”.
“They should form the basis of what I hope will be a constructive week of talks between the European Commission and the UK,” he said.
Progress will require “flexibility and imagination from both sides”, he said, adding: “We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and get down to work again once more.”
London says the EU’s insistence on the sequencing – the divorce settlement then future trade and political ties – may be counterproductive.
If the two strands were negotiated in parallel, it might actually help resolve other sticky issues such as the future EU-UK border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it says.
Last week, EU officials rejected any such connection, downplaying expectations that a “very big gap” could be bridged by the time Barnier and Davis address the press again on Thursday.
Both sides have warned that the clock is ticking down to the March 2019 Brexit deadline and that they are the ones doing their best to make progress.
The talks are taking place against a backdrop of deep political uncertainty in Britain, with the opposition Labour Party over the weekend backing a “soft” Brexit whereby the country remains in the EU’s customs union and single market for a transition period.
Prime Minister Theresa May has said she wants Britain unequivocally out of both but her position has been crippled since a June election gamble backfired and she lost her parliamentary majority.
May remains in office thanks to a deal with Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party which views the Republic, an EU member, with deep suspicion.
EU officials warned last week that the hard-won Northern Ireland peace process could not be used as a bargaining chip.
London’s hopeful suggestion that technology could help prevent the border becoming a physical barrier jeopardising the peace process was just “a lot of magical thinking”, one EU official said.
In another position paper, Britain said the European Court of Justice (ECJ) could continue to have an indirect influence, softening its position that the EU’s top court would not have any say in the country at all.
But again this is not enough, EU officials said.
The rights of more than 3mn EU citizens in Britain and 1mn Britons in Europe arose from EU law, and so remain the remit of the ECJ.
“There is no other possibility,” one official said.
As for Britain’s divorce settlement – estimated at up to €100bn in Brussels but much less at €40bn according to reports in London – EU officials said the talks were not about fixing a number but about agreeing how to work out the bill.
“We have to have a methodology sufficiently detailed so that commitments made to various beneficiaries of the EU budget will be honoured,” one of the EU officials said.
Ireland calls for realism from the United Kingdom on border issue
Much of the future border arrangements between Northern Ireland and Ireland can be solved before Brexit talks enter the next phase, Ireland’s foreign minister said, urging Britain to be realistic in negotiating terms to leave the European Union.
British officials arrived in Brussels yesterday to push the EU towards talks about their post-Brexit ties, which the bloc refuses to do without an agreement first on London’s exit bill and other divorce issues.
Among those issues is the conundrum of the currently invisible border between EU member state Ireland and Britain’s province of Northern Ireland, a matter fraught with economic consequences and politically complexities.
“We want some realism. There is a suggestion in the British government papers on Ireland that really the Irish border issues can only be solved in the context of a free trade agreement and I think there is a lot we can do in advance of that,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told national broadcaster RTE.
As part of a series of papers published by London this month it hopes will push forward talks with the EU, Britain said there should be no border posts or immigration checks on the neighbouring island of Ireland once London quits the EU in 2019.
At the same time, Britain’s Conservative government intends to regain complete control over immigration as part of Brexit, raising questions how this would work if there was a “back door” into Britain along an open land frontier with Ireland.
The Irish government, which had grown critical Britain’s approach to the talks, welcomed what it called significant progress in the papers but reiterated yesterday that London now must spell out in detail how their plan could be implemented.
“It’s up to the UK this week to outline how the position papers, particularly in relation to Ireland and the border issues, can actually work,” Coveney said. “Many in the EU, while they accept what Britain wants, they don’t see how the negotiating approach can achieve that.”
The issue of how the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland will fare after Britain leaves the EU is particularly sensitive given the decades of violence in the province over whether it should be part of Britain or Ireland.
Around 3,600 people were killed before the 1998 peace agreement between pro-Ireland Catholic nationalists and pro-British Protestant unionists.
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