BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Brexit talks are deadlocked over money, the EU’s Michel Barnier said on Thursday as he ruled out discussions on future trade being launched by EU leaders next week but spoke of possible progress by December.
Barnier and his British counterpart, Brexit Secretary David Davis, told reporters there had been some progress this week on the other two issues around Britain’s March 2019 withdrawal from the bloc on which the EU demands “sufficient progress” before it will agree to discuss a transition and future relationship.
With concern mounting about the possibility they might run out of time for any deal, Davis renewed his call for EU leaders to give a green light to trade talks after they meet Prime Minister Theresa May at a summit in Brussels next Thursday.
Barnier made clear, however, that despite new momentum from concessions given by May in a speech at Florence last month, British proposals on expatriate citizens’ rights and the Irish border still failed the EU test, while London’s refusal to spell out a detailed cash offer was “very worrying” for business.
May said then that the other 27 countries would not lose out financially from Brexit in the current EU budget period to 2020 and that Britain would honor commitments — but Barnier said London was failing to say exactly what it was ready to pay.
“Regarding that question, we are at an impasse, which is very worrying for thousands of projects everywhere in Europe and also worrying for those who contribute,” he said.
Nonetheless, he offered hope: “I am still convinced that, with political will, decisive progress is within reach in the coming two months. With David Davis, we will organize several negotiating meetings between now and the end of the year.”
With signs that nerves are fraying on both sides as less than 18-month remains before the deadline, some hardline Brexit supporters want May to just walk out of talks. Both negotiators repeated that they were ready for any eventuality including a collapse. But, Barnier warned, “no deal would be a very bad deal”.
May herself said there had been “good progress” and welcomed Barnier’s talk of further progress “over the coming weeks”.
Davis announced a “streamlined” new system for the 3 million EU citizens in Britain to claim residence rights, answering EU concerns, and said he expected good further progress on other issues. Barnier repeated that Brussels stills wants them to have recourse to EU judges to safeguard their rights and said there were still differences on rights for future family members.
A British demand for its million or so citizens on the continent to have lifetime rights to move to any of the bloc’s 27 countries after Brexit is held up by doubts among the member states. Barnier said those are rights to do with post-Brexit decisions and should be dealt with in the next phase of talks.
“I make no secret of the fact that to provide certainty we must talk about the future,” Davis said, stressing his demand for trade talks. “I hope the leaders of the 27 will provide Michel with the means to explore ways forward with us on that.”
“As we look to the October Council next week, I hope the member states will recognize the progress we’ve made and take a step forward in the spirit of the prime minister’s Florence speech.”
Barnier was pressed to say in public whether he would ask EU leaders’ permission to make some preliminary exploration of what a transition after March 2019 would look like. EU officials and diplomats say he has raised that issue with governments.
He told the news conference that he would follow a mandate ruling out any discussion of the future before issues arising from Britain’s past membership are settled and said it was important to respect the “sequencing”.
Diplomats have said that German and French envoys quashed a suggestion by Barnier last week that he start looking transition issues. On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose scope to change policy is limited by ongoing coalition talks, stressed Berlin would negotiate to minimize damage to Germany.
With the talks poised at a delicate stage, EU officials say it is unclear what leaders will tell May next week. They all rule out a clear move to trade talks but many expect “positive language” to try to defuse British accusations of Brussels intransigence and to help May stand up to her own party critics.
Officials see the early part of next year as a virtual deadline for agreeing to move on to discuss the future relationship. Failure to do so would raise the risk of there being no smooth transition and even of no deal at all.
($1 = 0.8446 euros)
Additional reporting by Lily Cusack and Robert-Jan Bartunek; writing by Philip Blenkinsop and Alastair Macdonald; editing by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Ralph Boulton