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UK 'chasing a fantasy' in Brexit talks, top EU official warns

The Guardian logo The Guardian 25/05/2018 Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, Pippa Crerar in London and Lisa O'Carroll in Dublin
Theresa May: The prime minister and the UK were urged ‘to accept the consequences of their own choices’, by the EU official. © Rex/Shutterstock The prime minister and the UK were urged ‘to accept the consequences of their own choices’, by the EU official.

The EU has accused the British government of “chasing a fantasy” and warned that it will not negotiate under threat, after a fraught week of Brexit talks in Brussels that have raised serious concerns about the future of the negotiations.

The whole approach of the UK government to the discussions was castigated by a senior EU official involved, who further warned that the bloc would not be forced into positions that were against its interests.

The UK’s suggestion that it would seek to recover more than €1bn of contributions to the Galileo satellite project unless the European commission lifted a block on British firms being involved received a particularly strident response, with an implicit threat that such posturing could unravel the discussions.

“The EU doesn’t negotiate under threat,” the senior EU official said. “Such a request for reimbursement would be backsliding and unacceptable.”

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After a bad-tempered week in Brussels, frustration is mounting as EU negotiators come to think that almost two years after the referendum the British government has not come to terms with Brexit.

The senior EU official said: “I have to say on the basis of this week’s discussions, I am a bit concerned because the pre-condition for fruitful discussions has to be that the UK accepts the consequences of its own choices.

“I am concerned that if the current debate continues, in three months’ time it will be the EU that will be made responsible for the Brexit decision. We need the UK to accept the consequences of its own decisions.

“To paraphrase The Leopard by Tommaso di Lampedusa, I have the impression that the UK thinks everything has to change on the EU’s side so that everything can stay the same for the UK.”

A whole host of withdrawal issues, from the role of the European court of justice in the governance of the withdrawal agreement to the UK’s role in Euratom, are yet to be dealt with despite the looming autumn deadline for an agreement.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on May 23, 2018, as she heads to the weekly Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) session in the House of Commons. (Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)        (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on May 23, 2018, as she heads to the weekly Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) session in the House of Commons. (Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

However, it remains the issue of the Irish border that could derail the talks before the European council summit in June, by which time Dublin and Brussels are demanding progress.

The EU wants the UK to agree to a backstop position for Northern Ireland that would come into force should a future trade deal or bespoke technological solutions fail to arise that could avoid the need for a hard border.

In a blow to Theresa May, the EU has formally rejected suggestions that the entire UK could remain half-inside the EU’s single market, while benefiting from a special customs deal to avoid a hard border.

The EU also poured cold water on suggestions from some influential Conservatives that the backstop could be time limited to allow the UK to find another answer. “We were not keen to have a discussion on the backstop to the backstop,” the official said.

The EU official warned that progress on the Irish border – “let alone substantive progress” – was proving “elusive”.

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right, gestures as he meets with British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis at EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday, March 19, 2018. (Virginia Mayo) © Associated Press European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right, gestures as he meets with British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis at EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday, March 19, 2018. (Virginia Mayo)

“We need to have the recognition that the backstop has to be Northern Ireland specific,” the official said. “We have to do away with the fantasy that there is an all-UK solution to that.”

Senior sources at the Brexit department rejected the suggestion that Brussels had dismissed the UK’s new backstop plan for the Irish border, suggesting that it was “simply a negotiating position” and that they believed the EU was open to the idea. “It’s a public stance for them to take during the negotiation,” one said.

A No 10 source said: “This is what they do every time. As usual we’ve heard it all before. There’s nothing they’ve said which concerns us.”

A government source added: “We presented seven papers this week … so the claim we aren’t providing enough detail is laughable.

“The risk is that if they follow down this track, putting conditions on our unconditional offers and trying to insult us, the EU will end up with a relationship with its third biggest economy and largest security partner that lets down millions of citizens in the EU and UK.”

Video: Corbyn: Solution by Tories mean return to hard border (Provided by ITN News)

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However, in a forthright point-by-point deconstruction of the UK’s negotiating positions, the EU official:

  • Warned that it would not allow the UK the access it wants post-Brexit to the Galileo satellite programme as it would give Downing Street the ability to “switch off the signal for the EU”.
  • Ruled out the UK retaining use of the European arrest warrant, as it could put in jeopardy “the lives and liberty of citizens”.
  • Responded to UK complaints that the EU’s proposed free-trade deal was insufficient by pointing out that the UK was asking for a more trusted position than that enjoyed by the member states, which are held accountable by the ECJ and the EU institutions, which the official described as “a big ask” and “not where the European council is at”.
  • Noted that the UK had suggested it could try to change the EU’s rules from inside before it leaves to gain access to its programmes post-Brexit, ominously warning that the commission’s negotiators would report back to the member states on the development.

In Dublin, Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, confirmed that he had not seen any firm proposals on the Irish border backstop since his meeting with May 10 days ago in Sofia.

“We are still waiting for them,” he said. “We’re not that far away from the deadline for the withdrawal agreement, we’re very much in the space where we need legal text,” he said.

Asked if he would consider, in principle, an extension of the transition period to 2023, he said: “There’s been no request from the UK to extend that and no offer to do so.”

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