The European Union and Britain start a third round of Brexit negotiations on Monday, with London looking to move discussions to the future relationship and Brussels demanding more clarity on the terms of the divorce first.
Almost five months after the two-year divorce process began, the Brexit discussions have made little headway, interrupted by a British general election as well as the summer. As things stand, Britain has little idea what relationship it will have with the other 27 countries of the EU past the Brexit date of March 2019.
On the EU side, the frustration is increasingly evident. On Monday, Germany’s main business lobby group criticized the British government for what it called an unclear stance on the future. The head of the Federation of German Industries — an influential group in the EU’s biggest economy — said that “appreciable progress can hardly be expected” during four days of talks this week.
Dieter Kempf said that there doesn’t appear to be a single agreed British government position. He added that British proposals on customs arrangements after the U.K. leaves the EU would require “disproportionately high bureaucratic effort” and are impractical for companies.
Kempf said that the U.K. must make clear statements on the terms of its withdrawal.
The EU has insisted that key issues of the withdrawal must be dealt with before any post-Brexit discussions can begin. Britain is hoping those discussions can begin as soon as October.
The bloc says that is impossible until there has been “sufficient progress” in agreeing terms of the divorce, including how much Britain must pay to settle its existing commitments to the EU.
Britain’s Brexit minister, David Davis, acknowledged that this week’s talks will be mainly technical, but urged EU negotiators to show “flexibility and imagination.”
“We want to lock in the points where we agree, unpick the areas where we disagree, and make further progress on a range of issues,” he said Monday.
In recent weeks Britain has released a series of position papers on aspects of Brexit ahead of the resumption of talks, but they received a muted reception from Brussels.
Meanwhile, Britain’s main opposition Labour Party announced Sunday that it backs the U.K. staying in the EU single market, which guarantees tariff-free trade, and customs union during a “transition period” of several years after Brexit, arguing that would give much-needed certainty to businesses and consumers. In return for remaining a member of the single market, Britain would have to agree to abide by the EU’s four freedoms, including the freedom of movement within the bloc. And by remaining in the customs union, Britain would not be able to carve out its own trade deals, possibly with the United States.
The government has also called for a transition period, but insists Britain will be out of the single market and customs union once Brexit actually takes place.
Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin. Lawless wrote from London.