EU's Barnier says no 'decisive progress' in Brexit talks

Brussels (AFP) –


EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned Thursday that the European Union and Britain had made no substantial breakthroughs in talks this week, with the key financial settlement a major stumbling bloc.

The latest, third round of talks concluded with Barnier and his British counterpart David Davis both underlining remaining differences despite time running out on achieving a comprehensive divorce deal.

"This week provided useful clarifications... but we did not get any decisive progress on the central subjects," Barnier told a joint press conference with Davis in Brussels.

The officials did take a slightly more positive tone than when they began Monday, when Barnier said, to a grim-faced Davis, that Britain must start negotiating "seriously".

Davis on Thursday was more upbeat, although he reiterated his call for the European side to show more flexibility, especially on the divorce bill the UK must pay as a price for leaving the bloc.

Britain's Brexit settlement is estimated at up to 100 billion euros in Brussels but at 40 billion, according to reports in London.

"The EU has made a claim on the UK taxpayer, undoubtedly a large number, on the basis of what it says are our legal obligations. The proper approach to this is to go through it line by line," Davis said.

"We are a country which meets its international obligations," Davis added firmly.

For his part, Barnier, said "EU taxpayers at 27 (member states) should not pay for obligations taken at 28."

"The UK in July recognised it had obligations beyond the Brexit date but this week, the UK explained that its obligations will be limited to its last payment before exit," Barnier said.

The EU has longstanding commitments, agreed to by Britain as a member state, in for example loans for Ukraine or to the African Development Bank, and London could not simply walk away from them, he added.

- Some progress on Ireland -

The European Union says there must be "sufficient progress" in three key areas -- EU citizen rights, Northern Ireland's border and the exit bill -- before it will consider post-Brexit arrangements.

EU leaders will review the talks in October to see how far they have got and whether it is possible to take up London's demand for negotiations on a free trade deal.

Davis reiterated that the two strands should be discussed in parallel since they are part and parcel of Brexit overall, but Barnier insisted again that the divorce deal must be agreed first.

He said highly sensitive discussions on the fate of Northen Ireland's border with the Irish Republic were "fruitful" with "substantial progress" achieved.

But with all the other topics still blocked, Barnier added: "We are from having sufficient progress to recommend that (EU leaders) launch talks about the future relationship."

Britain is on a countdown to leave the EU by the end of March 2019, following last year's shock referendum vote.

To avert a messy exit, British and EU officials have agreed to meet each month for four days in Brussels leading up to the October review.

The talks take place against a backdrop of deep political uncertainty in Britain, with the opposition Labour Party now backing a "soft" Brexit whereby the country remains in the EU's customs union and single market for a transition period.

Prime Minister Theresa May has said she wants Britain unequivocally out of both but her position has been crippled since a June election gamble backfired and she lost her parliamentary majority.

Barnier noted that it was Britain which had opted to leave the EU and so it had to bear the consequences -- "Brexit means Brexit," he said, copying a favourite May phrase.

The EU's job is to ensure that the cost -- political, economic, social -- to the bloc's citizens is minimal and that their interests are protected, he said.