David Davis, Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, has held only four hours of talks with his Brussels opposite number this year, according to government records.
The lack of political engagement was cited by EU leaders on Friday as they rebuked the UK for slow progress on Brexit. In a joint summit statement, they insisted on “the need for intensified efforts” and warned that there had been “no substantial” advances on the vexed issue of the Irish border.
Theresa May, UK prime minister, hopes to breathe new life into Brexit talks by agreeing a shift in position with her cabinet next week, but the time left for serious negotiations in Brussels is running out.
In a sign of the relative stasis in recent months, Mr Davis has met Michel Barnier, the EU lead on the talks, only three times in the first half of 2018 for talks lasting a total of four hours.
The pair met in London in February, in Brussels in March and again at the EU capital in June. While British officials have worked behind the scenes on detailed talks, high-level political discussions between the two principals have lasted on average 40 minutes a month since the start of the year.
Mr Davis has devoted more time to touring European capitals, aiming to raise awareness on Brexit issues with national ministers and increase pressure on the European Commission to take a more flexible approach.
A spokesperson for the Department for Exiting the EU said Mr Davis “oversees the full sweep of the negotiations and stays in regular contact with his counterpart”.
“He is also responsible for our domestic preparations for exit and the legislation that entails,” the spokesperson said. “In addition this year he has travelled to the majority of member states.”
Day-to-day negotiations with the commission have meanwhile passed to Olly Robbins, a senior civil servant who is Mrs May’s chief EU adviser and representative in talks. Brexit talks have to conclude by the end of the year, leaving time for the British parliament and European Parliament to approve any final deal.
“This desultory amount of face-to-face time shows the government has been treading water since December,” said Pat McFadden, Labour member of the Commons Brexit committee.
“They are more interested in negotiating with one another than getting a good deal for the UK.”
Mr Barnier on Friday warned that “huge and serious” differences have to be overcome on exit talks, and warned Mrs May the EU would not accept any move to keep Britain in a single market-style arrangement for goods only.
“Now we are waiting for the UK white paper,” he said. “And I hope it will contain workable and realistic proposals.” He added: “Time is very short.”
Mr Barnier’s comments reflect a growing fear in Brussels that Mrs May will take on the Eurosceptics in her cabinet to push for a softer form of Brexit, only to come up with a compromise that the EU cannot accept.
In particular, the EU negotiator fears that Mrs May will try to flesh out plans to keep Britain aligned with Brussels rules for industrial goods, while leaving the UK with more freedom to diverge on services.
Now we are waiting for the UK white paper. And I hope it will contain workable and realistic proposals. Time is very short
Mr Barnier argues that this would break up the “indivisible” single market freedoms — free movement of goods, services, capital and people — and amount to the kind of cherry-picking that Brussels has consistently rejected.
On Friday, he briefed the EU27 leaders on progress on Brexit talks, urging them to stay calm and respect the EU’s red lines, while expressing confidence that an exit deal would ultimately be agreed.
The EU27 adopted a summit communiqué reprimanding Mrs May for the slow progress made in exit talks, notably on the Irish border, saying there had been “no substantial progress”.
But the conclusions also held open the prospect that the EU could improve its offer to the UK should Mrs May drop some of her red lines, particularly her insistence on the ending of European Court of Justice jurisdiction in the UK after Brexit.
The leaders agreed that “if the UK positions were to evolve, the union will be prepared to reconsider its offer”.
But they also called on all member states and EU institutions to prepare for the possibility of a highly disruptive “no deal” Brexit.
Donald Tusk, European Council president, said at the end of the summit: “The most difficult things are still unresolved. This is the last call to put cards on the table.”
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