Britain and EU clash over who takes next Brexit step

Britain and EU clash over who takes next Brexit step

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after attending the Sunday morning service at a church in her Maidenhead constituency in Berkshire, east of Reading in southern England, on Oct 8, 2017. (Photo: AFP/Tolga Akmen)

BRUSSELS: The EU and Britain clashed on Monday (Oct 9) after British Prime Minister Theresa May said the ball was in the EU's court as Brexit negotiations entered a critical fifth round.

Officials from both sides met in Brussels, but chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart David Davis did not attend the start, underscoring low expectations for the talks.

This round of divorce discussions is the last before European leaders meet at a summit on Oct 19 to decide whether there is "sufficient progress" to move on to the trade talks that Britain desperately wants.

Brussels is particularly alarmed by the leadership crisis engulfing the British prime minister, who is facing a plot to oust her after a catastrophic, mishap-strewn speech at her Conservative Party's conference.

The embattled May told the British parliament that she expects "leadership and flexibility" from the other 27 EU countries in the negotiations.

"As we look forward to the next stage, the ball is in their court. But I am optimistic we will receive a positive response," May said.

But the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm which is leading the talks for the EU side, roundly rejected May's assertion that it was up to the EU 27 to take the initiative to advance the stalled talks.

"This is not exactly a ball game ... but what I can remind you of is there is a clear sequencing to these talks and there has been so far no solution found on step one, which is the divorce proceedings," the commission's chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a press conference.

"So the ball is entirely in the UK court for the rest to happen," he said.

Even before the commission's latest intervention, the prognosis for the talks was grim, with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker having warned that "miracles" would be needed this week to make enough progress to get a positive decision at the summit.

SUFFICIENT PROGRESS 'UNLIKELY'

Barnier and Davis are expected to hold a press conference on Thursday after four days of talks, though officials said that was yet to be confirmed.

Davis - at May's side for her statement to parliament on Monday - will be in Brussels on Tuesday and is expected to have lunch with Barnier, officials said, while Wednesday's timetable remains empty for now.

The questions over May's leadership have seriously damaged hopes that a speech she gave in Florence in September, which contained key concessions, could give a "new dynamic" to the talks.

Initially Barnier had hoped to achieve "sufficient progress" to move on to discussing future EU-UK relations by the end of October, with the clock ticking for a deal before Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019.

"It's quite unlikely there will be sufficient progress made over the coming two weeks," a senior European source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The talks have stalled on all three of the key divorce issues - the exit bill Britain must pay, the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and the fate of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

London wants to begin talks on the future, including a possible EU-UK trade deal, as soon as possible.

But they would be flying in the face not only of Barnier's advice, but also that of Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk and the European Parliament.

MEPs overwhelmingly voted in favour of a motion last week calling on the leaders to delay their decision until their next summit in December, owing partly to divisions in May's government.

NEW BRITISH CUSTOMS POWERS

The British government on Monday outlined new plans for customs powers, including rules if the country leaves the EU without securing an exit deal.

The draft legislation, to be put forward this autumn, would allow the government to set tariffs and quotas and establish a goods classification system in line with the government's obligations as a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Despite presenting plans including those to govern a no-deal scenario, the proposals said the government still intends to reach a settlement with Brussels.

May told parliament she wants to see Britain leave the customs union and the single market on Brexit Day, followed by a transition period towards a new trade relationship with the bloc.

"We should be able to operate on the same basis and on the same rules and regulations," during the transition period, May said, reminding lawmakers the specifics of the arrangement are still to be agreed with Brussels.

Source: AFP/ec/de

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