EU Demands More UK Brexit Clarity Before Approving Trade Talks
Top European Union officials teamed up on Tuesday to send UK Prime Minister Theresa May a blunt message: do more to flesh out Britain’s Brexit positions or put off trade talks for even longer.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, used a hearing in the European Parliament on Tuesday to all but extinguish any lingering hope that May might be given approval at an EU summit later this month to start negotiating the two sides’ future relationship.
“We cannot talk about the future without any real clarity,” Juncker told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, France. “The prime minister’s speech in Florence was conciliatory, but speeches are not negotiation positions.”
With the UK’s departure from the EU now 18 months away, officials have yet to come to an agreement even on the priority separation issues, let alone what a post-Brexit future will look like. While the prime minister’s speech in Italy, last month started to break through the deadlock, EU officials say they are still in the dark about many details on where the UK might be willing to compromise.
The hearing in Strasbourg precedes a vote by EU lawmakers on a resolution reiterating that “sufficient progress,” necessary for the start of trade talks, hasn’t yet been made. While the Parliament doesn’t have a formal say in that decision, it does have a veto over the entire Brexit deal at the end of the process, meaning that EU lawmakers’ views on the issue can’t be ignored.
Barnier, speaking in the same hearing, said “some clarifications” were still needed from the UK about its offer on protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the role of the European Court of Justice.
“We need a consistent interpretation of the agreement on both sides of the Channel, that only the European Court of Justice can guarantee,” Barnier said. “We need to have a direct application of the withdrawal agreement.”
Negotiations between UK and EU officials resume in Brussels next week before the summit on October 19-20. If leaders refuse to endorse the start of discussions on a future relationship and a transitional arrangement, the UK may have to wait until the next summit in December. The UK will leave the EU in March 2019 with or without a deal.
Britain has made “considerable progress” in the negotiations so far and “the focus of the government is on the upcoming negotiating round,” a spokesperson for the UK’s Brexit department said in an emailed statement.
The Strasbourg debate came on the same day as leading members of the British government are due to give speeches at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester. European lawmakers highlighted disagreements between ministers, such as Chancellor of Exchequer Philip Hammond, Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
“If you are at the other side of the negotiation table, there is a lack of clarity, there is even disunity,” said Guy Verhoftstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who is the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator. “There are oppositions between Hammond and Fox. There are oppositions - and divisions, I should say - between Johnson and May. It’s difficult to make sufficient progress.”
In Manchester, Johnson insisted he was behind “every syllable” of May’s Brexit plan. He’s been criticized by his own party after straying from the prime minister’s position to set out his own series of Brexit “red lines.”
Manfred Weber, head of the largest group in the European Parliament and an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, went as far as to say that May should fire Johnson.
“Theresa May, please don’t put your party first, put please Britain first,” he said. “Please sack Johnson because we need a clear answer who is responsible for the British position.”
The Parliament’s draft resolution includes a series of demands, including full European Court of Justice jurisdiction during a potential transition period, and over the withdrawal agreement.
The debate prompted Nigel Farage, the leading Brexit supporter who sits in the European Parliament, to say: “Thank God we’re leaving.”