BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s chief negotiator said Britain was running out of time to agree a transitional deal with the European Union on its departure from the bloc, if it wanted to avoid a cliff edge Brexit - an exit with no divorce deal.
Michel Barnier said there were “significant points of disagreement” on the post-Brexit transition period, which the EU wants to end at the end of 2020, adding that London was looking to keep it open-ended.
The EU wants a deal on Britain’s future relations with the bloc agreed by October, so EU leaders can approve the whole deal at a summit and launch the ratification process in the 27 remaining EU members.
Barnier said London was looking to keep it open-ended, though British officials said their request had always been for a ‘strictly time-limited’ adjustment period after Brexit.
Britain is due to become the first country to leave the EU in March 2019 and failure to agree on transitional arrangements would rob firms of the clarity over trade and customs policies they need to make investment decisions.
“The clock is ticking, time is going by, we are pressed for time,” Michel Barnier told a news conference a day before presenting the remaining 27 EU states with what said would be a 120-page draft legal agreement on Brexit.
“I am worried by the time, which is short between now and autumn. In a few months, we will have to agree with the United Kingdom about their orderly exit from the European Union as they wish,” he said.
His comments came as British Trade Minister Liam Fox said the opposition Labour party’s plan to stay in a customs union with the EU would leave Britain in a worse position than now and would be a sellout of Britain’s national interests.
For his part Barnier stressed some areas have seen little, or no progress since December, listing outstanding issues around safeguarding the rights of citizens, among others.
He repeated that the EU would not accept cherry-picking during any transitional arrangements, dismissing suggestions in London that Britain could stick to EU rules post-Brexit in some areas, diverge moderately in others and go its own way for the rest.
“We are responsible for the integrity of the single market,” Barnier said. “We cannot accept the risk of regulatory divergence during the transition period.”
He said the EU would push ahead with contingency planning for the island of Ireland for want of concrete ideas on how to reconcile Britain’s desire to leave the EU’s single market and the customs union, with pledges to avoid a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
The EU’s fallback option for Ireland assumes “full regulatory alignment” would be kept between the two after Brexit and Barnier said his text on Wednesday would propose workable solutions.
Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Jon Boyle