Michel Barnier has given a grim assessment of the current state of the Brexit talks, denouncing the UK for “failing to engage substantially” on several issues.
Speaking in Brussels on Friday, Barnier said the two sides were still “far apart” on numerous “key” issues including fisheries.
The EU’s chief negotiator said there were “serious difficulties ahead” if an agreement, as planned, is to be reached by the end of this year.
A clearly frustrated Barnier said, “It is an exceptionally tight timeframe.
“Never in history have we been under such time pressure. The UK cannot impose this short timeline and, at the same time, not budge on issues of importance to the EU.” He added, “It will be hard for both sides – but I still believe we can do it.”
Addressing reporters online, he also said the EU was “not closing the door” on an extension to the talks for up to two years but this had to be agreed before the end of June.
His downbeat verdict comes after talks resumed this week following a break due to the Coronavirus crisis.
Barnier added, “We cannot accept selective progress on a limited number of issues only. Progress is needed on all issues and in parallel. We still have to find solutions on the most important issues.”
“The UK cannot refuse an extension and at same time slow down these talks on important areas"
“The UK cannot refuse an extension and at same time slow down these talks on important areas". He said there were four areas where the talks this week had been “disappointing.”
The first was a level playing field, where he said, “The UK keeps repeating we are talking as sovereign equals but we have 66 million consumers on one side of the channel and a market of 450 million on the other side of channel. That is the reality but this week the UK failed to engage substantially on this issue.”
He said, “I repeat: there will be no ambitious trade deal without an ambitious level play field.”
“The second area where we remain far apart is governance of our future relationship. The third concern is with the UK’s refusal to guarantee fundamental rights and freedoms other than making vague statements. This creates serious problems”.
“It is the UK’s choice to be a third country and the UK cannot be treated as an EU member.”
The fourth problem, he said, was on “an essential topic”, fisheries. “Despite our best endeavours to reach agreement by the end of June the UK has not put forward any proposals on fisheries.”
“It is the UK’s choice to be a third country and the UK cannot be treated as an EU member”
Barnier stressed, “The EU will not agree to any future economic partnership if it does not have a balanced, sustainable and long term solution on fisheries. This should be crystal clear to the UK”.
He said it was agreed with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to hold a high level conference in the summer to take stock on progress, but “there are only two rounds left - in the weeks beginning 11 May and 1 June - and we must use this time to make real, tangible progress across all areas.
“June will also be a chance to take stock on the UK’s progress in implementing the protocol in Northern Ireland. With just eight months to go – I repeat eight months- it is urgent to take the necessary measures for the correct implementation of this agreement”.
“We need clear evidence the UK is advancing with this, for example, that the UK will be able to carry out all necessary sanitary controls and regulatory checks. I reminded the UK this week that this is central to the ongoing talks.”
Barnier, who, like Boris Johnson has recently recovered from Coronavirus, said, “A future partnership can only be built on trust but I have to be frank: we face serious difficulties. We can get beyond them if there is mutual respect”.
“The health crisis is grave and places further responsibility on both sides to work together.”