Britain and the EU face a “furious race against time” to agree a transition deal and future trade relations within the next 10 months, European Council president Donald Tusk has said. In a letter to the leaders of the 27 remaining EU states ahead of a crucial summit on December 14-15, Mr Tusk urged them to show continued “unity” as Brexit negotiations enter their second phase.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned there could not be any “backtracking” on the divorce deal struck between Theresa May and Brussels.
The summit of European leaders is expected to agree on Friday that talks on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal have made “sufficient progress” for negotiations to move on to the future relationship.
But there are signs of lingering disgruntlement over Brexit Secretary David Davis’s suggestion that the deal last week by the Prime Minister and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on the issues of citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the UK’s £39 billion divorce bill amounted to a “statement of intent” rather than a binding agreement.
Mr Barnier said the EU would be “vigilant” about any attempts by the UK to depart from the deal.
A leaked draft of the guidelines for the second phase of talks, expected to be approved on Friday, warns: “Negotiations in the second phase can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken during the first phase are respected in full and translated faithfully in legal terms as quickly as possible.”
Mr Davis sought to smooth relations with the European institutions, saying he had spoken to Mr Verhofstadt and agreed with him on the importance of last week’s joint report, adding: “Let’s work together to get it converted into legal text as soon as possible.”
The Brexit Secretary had already been forced to row back on his comments at the weekend, which were branded “bizarre” by the Irish Government and led a European Commission spokesman to note that, while the joint report would not be legally binding until enshrined in a formal Withdrawal Agreement, it was regarded in Brussels as “a deal between gentlemen” which was “fully backed and endorsed” by the UK Government.
In his letter to EU27 leaders, Tusk said he regarded the joint report as “a satisfactory result on most issues”. He wrote ”for that reason, and based on the recommendation by our chief negotiator, I have tabled guidelines which will signal, if you agree, that we are ready to move to the second phase, which will expand discussions to cover transition and the framework for the future relationship”.
“The conclusion of the first phase of negotiations is moderate progress, since we only have 10 months left to determine the transition period and our future relations with the UK. “This will be a furious race against time, where again our unity will be key. And the experience so far has shown that unity is a sine qua non of an orderly Brexit.”
At a press conference in Brussels, Mr Barnier said: “Even if the European Council does recognize sufficient progress on Friday, we will have a final agreement only if the political commitments taken by Theresa May in the name of the British Government last Friday are respected and we will be vigilant.”
“We will not accept any backtracking from the UK from commitments in the joint report. All our points of agreement our now closed.”
The joint report would be translated into “legally binding and precise language”, with a draft of the withdrawal agreement produced early next year, Mr Barnier said.