The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said on Thursday (31 August) that both sides were “quite far” from reaching the “sufficient progress” necessary to open talks about the UK’s future relationship with the EU after it leaves the bloc.
Speaking after a third round of talks in Brussels, Barnier once again expressed impatience over the UK’s refusal to come forward with a “clear” proposal to settle the financial contributions it will owe to the EU budget after Brexit.
Striking a more optimistic note, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Davis, described the four days of talks in Brussels as a “long and detailed discussion”.
Earlier this year, EU leaders said that “sufficient progress” was required in talks over the UK’s financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the Northern Irish border, before opening discussions on the UK’s future relationship with the remaining 27 EU members.
Discussions on future EU-UK relations were expected to be opened during a summit on 19-20 October, provided “sufficient progress” was reported in those areas. This would meet a long-standing demand from London which as asked for negotiations on future relations to take place alongside divorce talks.
But speaking next to Davis, Barnier said: “We are quite far to say that sufficient progress has been made.”
Senior diplomats explained in private that if that goal was not met, negotiations could face a serious crisis.
Both sides will meet again in the second half of September, although Barnier repeated his offer to intensify talks.
“We have seen some progress,” said Davis. However, he admitted that still there are “significant differences” when it comes to the financial settlement, the main bone of contention at the negotiating table.
The European Commission had presented a list of programs and commitments that must be covered by the UK before its leaves the EU in March 2019. The total sum could reach €60 billion to €100 billion.
“We have presented our legal analysis”, Davis said, admitting that the UK’s position was “very different” to the EU’s.
He added that the settlement “should be in the spirit of legal obligations and in the spirit of continuing the partnership with the EU”, a remark interpreted by EU officials as a commitment to find a solution.
But as they did during the previous round of talks, British negotiators questioned “line by line” all the claims made by EU officials.
Barnier insisted that “time is short” and lamented again that the UK had not presented any methodology to come up with a figure.
Quoting Council conclusions, Davis demanded again “flexibility” and “imagination” to the EU side in the talks. But Barnier responded that in order to offer flexibility, the British government needed to start from a “clear” position.
EU officials later reminded that the Council’s reference to “flexible and imaginative solutions” referred to Northern Ireland.
Ireland and citizens
EU and British negotiators achieved small progress on this chapter, in particular in the common travel area between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
But a senior EU official admitted that protecting the Good Friday agreement that brought an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland was “more complex than initially thought”. They explained that a large part of north-south cooperation on the island was based on EU legislation, in fields like health, water management and the environment.
The EU and the UK also discussed citizens’ right in this round of talks, in particular, border workers, social security (healthcare and pensions), the mutual recognition of qualifications and economic rights.
UK efforts to try to maintain the status quo in this area clashed with a more narrow approach by the EU side.
The discussion is especially sensitive in the health sector, given the high number of British pensioners living in the EU. For example, 750,000 live in Spain.
Both sides reached an agreement in principle to “at least” maintain existing health coverage for British pensioners living in member states and even visiting another member state. But they would lose their rights if they move their residence to another EU country.
Barnier spoke of “some sort of nostalgia” on the UK side, referring to Britain’s efforts to maintain the status quo as much as possible in this area and others like the compatibility of standards.
He said that the papers submitted by the UK did not reflect the “Brexit means Brexit” mantra repeated by London since the Brexit referendum in June last year.
The ex-Commissioner stressed that the UK could not enjoy the benefits of the Union while being outside.
“I would not confuse a belief in the free market for nostalgia,” Davis replied.
Barnier said he was not “frustrated” with the lack of progress made or the vague proposals put forward by the UK. “I am not angry…I am impatient and determined”, he told a journalist.
“If I ever truly get angry, you will notice it,” he said.
MEP Elmar Brok (EPP), the Brexit Sherpa of the European Parliament, said: "The process of the UK negotiation delegation in the three areas of civil rights, financial obligations and the Irish question makes it difficult to achieve substantial progress by October. Thus, the second phase on the future relationship could be decided at the earliest in December. The British position in the financial question of not even submitting negotiation papers, ultimately leads to the impossibility of coming to the second phase."