Warm words but Brexit negotiators disagree on talks’ progress
Brexit talks are advancing, negotiators agreed Thursday, but how far and how fast remains a matter of sharp dispute.
At the conclusion of the fourth round of formal bargaining, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, acknowledged there was “a new dynamic” as a result of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech in Florence last week. But Barnier said that the sides remained some distance from agreement on the key divorce terms, and had not yet cleared the threshold set by the European Council for advancing to the next stage.
“We are far from being at a stage – it will take weeks, or maybe even months – where we will be able to say ‘Yes, okay, there has been sufficient progress on the principles of this orderly withdrawal,’” Barnier said.
Barnier’s sober assessment stood in stark contrast to a much rosier picture presented by David Davis, the U.K.’s secretary of state for exiting the European Union.
“We’re making decisive steps forward,” Davis said at the opening of a joint news conference with Barnier. “After four rounds, when I look across the full range of issues to do with our withdrawal from the EU, I’m clear we have made considerable progress.”
Taken together, the differing assessments signaled that negotiators were finally, after four months, engaged in a vigorous back-and-forth on the three main divorce issues: rights of EU citizens in the U.K. (and vice versa), the U.K.’s financial settlement and the Northern Irish border. That said, they seemed by the end of September to have reached a point that officials initially hoped to achieve in July.
The leaders of the remaining 27 EU countries are due to make an assessment on the progress of the talks at a summit in Brussels next month. Several officials, particularly in the European Parliament, have already expressed serious doubt that “sufficient progress” can be achieved by then.
Davis, however, insisted on Thursday that progress was being made across the board — on “increasing certainty for citizens and business, providing reassurance to our EU partners in regards to our mutual financial obligations and agreeing to some of the key principles in regards to some of the issues arising for Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
He sought to provide details of those advances, as well as announcing new proposals that the U.K. had brought forward in response to EU concerns. On citizens’ rights, he said that the U.K. remained opposed to allowing the continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice — a core demand on the EU side — but said that the U.K. had offered alternative protections under U.K. law.
“We must also acknowledge that a major question remains open between us. It relates to the enforcement of citizens’ rights after we leave the European Union,” Davis said. “The U.K. has been clear that, as a third country outside the European Union, it would not be right for this role to be performed by the European Court of Justice. But we have listened to the concerns that have been raised, and as a direct result of hearing those concerns, the United Kingdom is committed to incorporating the final withdrawal agreement fully into U.K. law.”
‘We are not there yet’
Barnier seemed to reject that proposal as insufficient and repeated the EU’s demand for a continued role for the European Court of Justice. More generally, however, Barnier, suggested things had not moved nearly as far as Davis suggested.
“We managed to create clarity on some points. On others, however, more work remains to be done and we are not there yet,” Barnier said. “But we will keep working in a constructive spirit until we reach a deal on the essential principles of the U.K.’s orderly withdrawal.”
While Davis said that there had been solid progress on issues like social security coordination and especially on Ireland, Barnier stressed that the sides were still quite far apart on the financial settlement.
Barnier also said that continued U.K. budget contributions in 2019-2020, without a commitment on continuing obligations such as pension payments, would fall far short in his view of meeting the U.K.’s full obligations.
Davis said the two sides were close to a deal on nuclear energy that would effectively replace the U.K.’s rights and obligations as a signatory to the Euratom treaty. And he also stressed some new offers by the U.K., including an attempt to secure the right for U.K. citizens living in the EU27 to move from one country to another, and not be restricted to their country of residence on the date of Britain’s withdrawal.
“We have offered guaranteed rights of return for settled EU citizens in the U.K. in return for onward movement rights, rights for onward movement for U.K. nationals who currently live in the 27,” Davis said. Barnier did not respond directly to that proposal, but emphasized that a long road still lay ahead.
“In three weeks from now, the October European Council will be an opportunity for me to talk of the negotiations with President Juncker and President Tusk and the 27 heads of state and government,” he said. “I also look forward next week to the European Parliament’s resolution, which is important.” The Parliament will vote on a draft resolution that is critical of the degree of progress in the talks thus far.
Barnier added, “I hope that the new dynamic created by Prime Minister May’s speech in Florence will continue to inform our work. Let’s leave it here.”
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