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Brexit: 'Clock ticking' in trade talks countdown

November 17, 2017

Negotiators have given Britain until the end of the month to make headway on a divorce settlement that includes a hefty bill, citizens' rights and the Irish border. Leaders in Europe are increasingly losing patience.

EU Social Summit Leo Varadkar und Theresa May
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Mayo

Britain hopes the European Union will respond "positively" to its Brexit proposals, British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Friday, as frustrated EU leaders warned that time is running out to progress onto trade talks.

May repeated a pledge to honor Britain's commitments to the EU — a sticking point in stalling negotiations — but did not detail which ones she was referring to.

"The clock is ticking," European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters.

"I hope that we will be able to come to an agreement as far as the divorce is concerned at the December council, but work has still to be done."

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Stalled negotiations

Talks between the two parties have reached near-deadlock over an inability to agree on the terms of the so-called divorce settlement. The EU maintains that trade negotiations may only begin after broad agreement on the size of Britain's payout to the EU, the safeguarding of citizen's rights, and the future status of the Irish border.

The bloc's lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, has called for substantial progress on all three points by the start of December if talks are to advance.

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EU Social Summit: EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven
Jean-Claude Juncker (L) and Stefan Lofven (R) warn that Brexit negotiations are not progressing fast enoughImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Ludovic

'Work to be done'

Prime Minister May met with European Council President Donald Tusk on Friday on the sidelines of a summit in Gothenburg, Sweden. The two had "positive discussions" and "agreed that there is more work to be done," a statement from May's spokesman said.

The British prime minister also met with counterparts from France, Ireland, Poland and Sweden.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said it was "very difficult to say" whether a deal was possible in December and called on Britain to clarify the issue of financial responsibility.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said it was "possible" for talks to progress only if Britain gave written guarantees that Brexit will not result in a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Varadkar added that 18 months had passed since the Brexit referendum and a decade since people had started campaigning for it.

"Sometimes it doesn't seem like they've thought all this through," he said.

Northern Ireland faces uncertain future

A border problem

A key issue that remains to be resolved is the status of the future EU-UK border — particularly the land border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which is not.

May has confirmed that there would be no hard border between the two regions, which have a bloody history of sectarian violence, but she has not reconciled this with Britain's desire to exit the customs union that Ireland belongs to.

On Friday, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson linked the question of the Irish border to the trade talks planned for the second phase of negotiations.

"The issues of the Northern Irish border and how it works are intellectually, intimately bound up with the questions of the customs union, the single market, Britain's relationship with those," Johnson said during a meeting in Dublin with his Irish counterpart.

"Those questions have been reserved by the Commission for study in stage two of the negotiations. I think logically now is the time to proceed to stage two."

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney echoed his prime minister's call for concrete assurances before moving on in negotiations. "We have very serious issues, particularly around the border, that need more clarity," he said.

He called for a tailor-made solution in Northern Ireland if Britain pursues its ambition to free itself of EU regulations.

In the absence of that, Coveney said that from an Irish perspective, "there is a sense of jumping into the dark." 

an/nm (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)