Brexit negotiations took a turn for the worse on Friday as European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned that the transition period “is not a given” if disagreements with the UK persist.
His intervention in Brussels came soon after Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis accused the EU of using “discourteous language” in a leaked document on the ongoing negotiations.
During a proposed 21-month transition period, also termed as the “implementation phase” of Brexit, the UK would effectively stay in the EU and under its laws, but lose its seat on its decision-making table.
The key differences between both sides revolve around the UK’s demand for power to object to new rules imposed on it during the transition period, restrictions on the rights of EU citizens who come to Britain during that phase, and the ability to opt in to certain European policies.
Barnier said the EU has “problems” in understanding the position of the British government.
He said, “I’m surprised by these disagreements and if they persist, a transition is not a given. I wasn’t talking about a threat. We have to bear in mind what the UK has said. I have some problems understanding the position.
“They themselves asked for this transition period. The EU’s 27 heads of government said yes on the basis of very logical positions. It’s understandable. But if this disagreement were to persist there will undoubtedly be a problem”.
Refusing to be drawn into a response to Britain’s allegation of “discourteous language”, the man in charge of striking a deal on behalf of the 27 EU member-states claimed he had remained objective and calm but insisted it was time for the UK to make choices on key issues such as the Northern Ireland border.
“It is important to tell the truth,” Barnier said.
His briefing came at the end of a week of technical talks between both sides’ negotiators in Brussels.
He also seemed to accuse the UK of cancelling a planned meeting due to a “diary clash”, but British officials denied cancellation and claimed the meeting had merely been moved to a later time.
The UK’s Department for Exiting the European Union in London reacted with a sharply worded retort to Barnier’s claims of a lack of clarity on Britain’s position.
“Given the intense work that has taken place this week it is surprising to hear that Michel Barnier is unclear on the UK’s position in relation to the implementation period,” Davis said in a statement.
Accusing the European Commission of a “fundamental contradiction” in its approach, he added, “Today they acknowledged that a way to resolve disputes and infringements is needed. Yet at the same time they dismissed the UK’s push for reasonable safeguards to ensure our interests are protected. It is not possible to have it both ways”.
The minister claimed that the UK continued to approach the negotiations in a spirit of achieving a comprehensive post-Brexit partnership to ensure the UK and EU remain the “closest of friends and allies”.
Both sides are working towards a deadline to reach an agreement on the transition period before the European Council?meeting in March.
A failure to agree on the contours of the implementation phase could mean the UK would effectively crash out of the economic bloc without a deal on March 29, 2019 ? unless the negotiation period is extended by consent of all 27 EU countries, or Article 50 is revoked.
The Opposition Labour party’s shadow Brexit minister Kier Starmer termed Barnier’s intervention as a “wake up call” for the British prime minister.
“Theresa May must end the infighting within her Cabinet, drop her reckless red lines and accept Labour’s proposals for a transitional deal. That means seeking to remain in a customs union with the EU and within the single market during that period,” he said.
Meanwhile, Premier May chaired meetings of her Brexit sub-committee this week amid much disagreement between different factions of her Cabinet.
Davis claimed the atmosphere at these meetings, aimed at sketching out what the UK wanted its future relationship with the EU to look like, had been “very constructive” and there had been “lots of things resolved” but admitted there was “still progress to be made”.