Pressure is mounting on the British Government to reach an agreement on the Brexit Bill after the EU’s chief negotiator set a deadline of just two weeks to prove the country is ready to move on to the next phase of talks.
Speaking after the latest round of negotiations in Brussels, Michel Barnier said the UK still needs to offer clarifications on financial obligations and citizens’ rights ahead of a crucial meeting of EU leaders next month.
His comments came at the end of a two-day session which threatened to be overshadowed by recent signs of disarray in Theresa May’s Government, including ongoing speculation about the future of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson,
But despite uncertainty on the domestic front, Brexit Secretary David Davis insisted talks are continuing “at pace” and both sides were “making clear progress”.
The sixth round of discussions comes just over four weeks ahead of the December meeting of the European Council, where representatives of the remaining 27 member states are expected to decide whether or not to allow negotiations to begin on a future trade relationship with the UK.
The proposals were dismissed at a similar meeting in October, and if EU leaders delay again, it is unlikely that talks will be allowed to move on to phase two until March next year. This would potentially leave just seven months before member states are expected to ratify the final deal, and less than a year before the official Brexit date of March 29, 2019.
Key sticking points include the future role of the European Court of Justice in overseeing the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, and the UK’s outstanding financial obligations to the EU.
Speaking today, Mr Davis insisted that negotiating teams “continue to make significant progress across a whole range of issues” including the financial settlement. He went on to say that talks “will continue at pace” between now and December” and he is hopeful this “will lead to sufficient progress”.
“This is now about moving into the political discussions that will enable both of us to move forward together. We must now look ahead to moving our discussions onto our future relationship,” he said. “For this to happen, both parties need to build confidence in both the process and indeed in the shared outcome. And we remain ready and willing to engage as often and as quickly as needed to secure this outcome over the weeks remaining ahead of the December European Council.”
However, Mr Barnier made it clear that the Council is still looking for “sufficient progress” on the key areas, and that in his opinion “we haven’t got there yet”.
Responding to a question from a reporter, he added that he expects further clarification within the next two weeks if talks are to move on in December.
His comments followed an intervention by the Foreign Office chief Lord Kerr, who has insisted that it is not too late for the country to change its mind about leaving the EU. Speaking at an event in London, the peer, who was involved in the drafting of Article 50, suggested voters were in danger of being “misled” by the Government’s claims that Brexit could not be stopped.
It also came ahead of a crucial stage for the EU Withdrawal Bill next week, with ministers tabling an amendment to enshrine the March 29 exit date in law.