EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has fired a diplomatic shot across the bow of his UK counterparts by warning that the pace of talks may not be sufficient to reach a critical milestone in October.
Reporting to EU 27 ambassadors on the second round of talks last week, Mr Barnier suggested it may be necessary to move to more frequent than monthly negotiating rounds if the crucial benchmark of “sufficient progress” is to be met which will allow the opening of talks on the future EU-UK relationship, specifically trade.
The heads of government of the 27 will decide whether the yardstick has been met.
Mr Barnier’s concern at what he sees as a lack of preparedness on the UK side is widely shared – an Irish diplomatic source expressed concern about whether an agreement on the phase one “divorce” issues could be reached in time for the October summit.
Two weeks earlier
An ambassador, quoted by the news site Politico, said Mr Barnier told diplomats at the meeting on Wednesday that he would be ready to organise a meeting with the UK negotiators on August 15th, two weeks earlier than planned. “It all depends on how prepared the UK side is,” the source said.
Mr Barnier is reported also to have warned that accelerating the talks process would be possible only if the UK was prepared to table “substantial” counter-proposals on the Brexit bill – the amount the UK will be required to pay on departure to honour its financial obligations to the EU. Last week EU negotiators were frustrated by the UK team’s negative approach to talks on this issue, which consisted largely of a series of detailed legal questions about the EU’s position.
Responding to concerns about the slow pace of the talks, a British government spokesman said its officials were “working at pace and we are confident we will have made sufficient progress by October to advance the talks to the next phase”.
“On the financial settlement, we have been clear that we recognise the UK has obligations to the EU and that the EU also has obligations to the UK,” he said.
In a separate development, UK home secretary Amber Rudd has sought to reassure EU nationals that they will still be able to come to the UK to work during the transition phase after Brexit, although they will be required to register their details on arrival.
Ms Rudd was speaking after a day of confusion over the British government's plans for immigration, during which ministers appeared to contradict one another. Writing in the Financial Times on Thursday, Ms Rudd had sought to reassure business there would be no "cliff edge" on immigration after Brexit.
Later in the morning, however, immigration minister Brandon Lewis said any implementation period would not amount to a continuation of free movement of people from the EU. “Free movement of labour ends when we leave the European Union in spring of 2019,” he told the BBC.