EU warns Britain: Brexit talks clock is ticking

AFP, BRUSSELS

Sat, Nov 11, 2017 - Page 6

The EU on Thursday warned Britain that time is running out to reach a divorce deal by the end of this month, a necessary step to guarantee moving the Brexit process on to trade negotiations.

As Brexit talks resumed in Brussels, concerns are growing among EU officials that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s mounting political woes are slowing down negotiations on the historic split.

Stalling by Britain on its exit bill has prompted fears that EU leaders would be unable to advance next month to the next phase of talks on a trade deal and that the deadline could even slip to March.

“Time is pressing,” European Chief Negotiator for the UK Exiting the EU Michel Barnier said in a speech in Rome, before flying back to Brussels to start the sixth round of the slow-moving talks.

“The European Council summit in October wanted to keep up the dynamic of the negotiations and I am of the same state of mind, but the real moment of clarification is coming,” Barnier said.

Barnier added that future ties would depend on whether Britain stuck to the “European model” of regulation, in a pointed warning after US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said London should move closer to US rules after Brexit.

The British Department for Exiting the EU replied on Twitter that “we’ve made considerable progress on the issues that matter.”

It also confirmed that the precise date and time of the nation’s exit from the EU — 11pm on March 29, 2019 — would be added to a withdrawal bill working its way through parliament.

The amendment follows concerns among some British lawmakers that the date, exactly two years after May triggered Article 50 — which stipulates withdrawal from the EU within this time frame — had not been enshrined in British law.

This week’s talks feature a stripped-down two-day schedule instead of the normal four days, with Barnier and British Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis only due to meet yesterday morning before holding a news conference, sources said.

To move on to talks on a free-trade deal and a post-Brexit transition period, the EU is demanding sufficient progress on three key divorce issues.

The most contentious is the bill Britain must pay to cover its budgetary commitments, a figure which senior EU officials put at 60 billion euros (US$70 billion).

They also want commitments on keeping an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and on guaranteeing the rights of 3 million EU citizens living in Britain.

However, the British government looks increasingly distracted, with the resignation on Wednesday of its aid minister over unofficial meetings in Israel adding to the sense of chaos since May’s disastrous showing in elections earlier this year.

Britain also faces an economic slowdown, with the EU cutting its growth outlook for the nation this year and warning that times would remain tough because of Brexit “uncertainty.”

“We are a bit concerned about what we are seeing in the UK at the moment, we want a strong negotiating partner,” an EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “I see a strong willingness to come to a deal. I am confident that everybody understands what has to be done on both sides. The question is: Do they have the strength and will the moves be made in time by the end of November, first week of December?”