The war of words between Britain and the EU is threatening to overshadow the second day of Brexit talks after Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker became the latest to attack the UK’s negotiating stance.
Speaking this morning, the Luxembourg politician hit out at the Government’s latest slew of position papers, describing them as unsatisfactory and claiming it was “crystal clear” that an “enormous amount” of issues needed to be settled before talks on a future trade deal could begin.
His intervention follow yesterday’s scathing comments from the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who used a joint press conference with Brexit Secretary David Davis to urge Britain to take negotiations more “seriously”.
This has drawn fierce criticism from British sources, who reportedly dismissed the comments as “inconsistent, ill-judged… and unhelpful”.
Meanwhile Labour are still trying to frustrate the ‘will of the people:
Yesterday Labour’s Heidi Alexander, the MP who tried to block the triggering of Article 50 in January, confirmed that Remainers are seeking a permanent transition to prevent Brexit:
Brexit: ‘No deal’ might soon be a real possibility
RED BOX | COMMENT
When will the government start to talk seriously about leaving the EU without a deal? It’s hard to detect any significant progress in the five months since negotiations started formally and no one is expecting a big breakthrough in the third round of talks in Brussels this week.
The government is facing renewed pressure to pursue a “soft Brexit” after Labour’s decision to press to remain in the single market and customs union during a transition phase but there won’t be a period of transition unless there is agreement on the arrangements afterwards.
The government has sought to inject some momentum into the process, with a flurry of papers setting out its thinking on crucial issues including customs arrangements, judicial oversight and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
It is easy to find flaws in the proposals: there’s a lack of detail and in many cases only a list of options. But they could provide the basis for further discussions. Instead, the EU has accused Britain of “magical thinking” on the Irish border, with officials showing a “lack of substance” and ministers accused of using the peace process as a “bargaining chip”.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is insisting that there must be sufficient progress on the Irish border issue, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the Brexit bill before any future trade deal can be discussed. He says that he is bound by the mandate agreed with the other 27 EU states. Yet the EU’s own negotiating guidelines state that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
David Davis, the Brexit secretary, is pressing for more “flexibility and imagination” in the EU’s approach. There is a clear logic in his argument that it is impossible to resolve questions such as the Irish border without considering future customs arrangements.
Already sources are indicating that the prime minister may have to intervene to break the stalemate when she meets EU leaders at the summit in October.
If the EU is unwilling or unable to compromise even on the structure of the negotiations it is hard to see how real progress can be made.
Ministers are correct to say that a comprehensive deal with a period of transition is in the interests of both sides. The EU does have a tradition of finding compromises at the eleventh or even the thirteenth hour but we are constantly reminded that the clock is ticking and that the gulf between the two sides on so many critical issues remains as deep as ever.
Clearly there are huge risks in talking up the prospect of leaving without a deal. The opposition and some pro-EU Tories would accuse the government of disastrous failure. Businesses would warn of serious consequences and the pound would probably dive further.
But if the negotiations continue at the snail’s pace we have seen over the past five months we may well reach a point when it becomes obvious that we are nowhere near the smooth and orderly transition that the government is seeking.
If the government has laid the ground for such a scenario, it is just possible that it may be able to contain the fallout. It could set out contingency plans, talk up the prospects of global free trade deals and lay the blame firmly at the door of an intransigent EU.
Ministers may need to demonstrate that they are seriously prepared to walk away without agreement if they are to convince our European partners to rethink their stance and adopt a more flexible approach. Some in the cabinet would oppose such a move.
The government has always said that no deal is better than a bad deal. It may need to make it plain that this is not simply a hollow threat if the UK is to make any real progress in the complex and tortuous Brexit negotiations.
Carole Walker is a political journalist