French President Emmanuel Macron has warned Theresa May greater clarity is needed over Britain’s negotiating position if she wants to break the deadlock in the stalled Brexit talks.
In a keynote speech in Florence, the Prime Minister set out her offer to continue paying into EU coffers for a two-year transition period after the UK leaves in 2019, during which EU nationals would remain free to settle in Britain.
Downing Street had hoped her keenly awaited address would end the stalemate in Brussels and enable the talks to move on to Britain’s future relations with the EU – including a free trade deal.
However, speaking in Paris, Mr Macron said that while he welcomed Mrs May’s “willingness” to move forward, more progress was needed on the rights of EU citizens in Britain and the border with Ireland as well as the so-called “divorce settlement”.
“Before we move forward, we wish to clarify the issue of the regulation of European citizens, the financial terms of the exit and the question of Ireland,” he said.
“If those three points are not clarified, then we cannot move forward on the rest.”
Meanwhile there was concern among some pro-Brexit Conservatives that Mrs May had given too much ground to Brussels in her efforts to get a deal
Backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg said she had failed to make clear whether the UK would remain subject to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) during the transition period.
“To my mind that is an absolutely red line,” he told BBC 2’s Newsnight.
“If after March 2019 we are still subject to the ECJ we have not left the European Union and that would be undermining the (referendum) vote we had in 2016.”
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Mr Macron’s comments echoed those of the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier who welcomed the “constructive spirit” of her speech but said her assurances needed to be translated into a “precise negotiating position”.
The intervention by Mr Macron – the first EU leader to respond to her initiative – will come as a particular disappointment to Mrs May.
In her speech, she appealed to fellow European leaders to show “creativity and flexibility” in forging a unique new partnership, which would include a “comprehensive and ambitious” trade deal.
“We should be in no doubt, that if our collective endeavours in these negotiations were to prove insufficient to reach an agreement, it would be a failure in the eyes of history and a damaging blow to the future of our continent,” she said.
Under her proposals, the UK could pay around £18 billion into the EU budget during a two-year transition in which the UK would continue to have access to the single market and EU nationals would remain free to move to Britain – although they would have to register with the UK authorities.
She also promised the rights of EU citizens living in the UK would be written into British law and proposed a “bold new strategic agreement” on future security co-operation.
However Mr Barnier – who meets Brexit Secretary David Davis for a fourth round of talks on Monday – said that while Mrs May’s comments on citizens’ rights were a “step forward”, there was still no clarity on the UK’s position on the Irish border.
He said the EU side would also have to examine whether Mrs May’s offer on the financial settlement – promising no member state would lose out during the current budget round as a result of Brexit – covered all of the UK’s commitments.
“The sooner we reach an agreement on the principles of the orderly withdrawal in the different areas – and on the conditions of a possible transition period requested by the United Kingdom – the sooner we will be ready to engage in a constructive discussion on our future relationship,” he said.
Mrs May’s speech did at least succeed in uniting the warring factions in her Cabinet, with both Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – who was reported to have been on the brink of resignation – and Chancellor Philip Hammond endorsing her position.
The Prime Minister explicitly ruled out both a Norway-style arrangement with the UK continuing to pay for access to the single market – thought to be favoured by Mr Hammond – and a looser free trade agreement along the lines of the EU’s deal with Canada – backed by Mr Johnson – after 2021.
Instead, she called for “a creative solution to a new economic relationship that can support prosperity for all our peoples”.