Michel Barnier.  Picture: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR
Michel Barnier. Picture: REUTERS/FRANCOIS LENOIR

Strasbourg — The European Parliament harshly criticised divisions in the British government on Tuesday as it overwhelmingly backed a motion saying it was too soon to move on to the next phase of Brexit talks.

MEPs in Strasbourg voted after EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the talks had made insufficient progress to unlock talks on a future trade deal because of "serious divergences" on key issues. The non-binding vote by the parliament called on EU leaders to delay a decision on moving to the next phase, which they are due to make at a summit on October 19, unless there is a "major breakthrough".

Manfred Weber, head of the largest group in the parliament, said splits in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet were holding up the Brexit negotiations. Speaking as May’s Conservative Party was holding its annual conference, Weber even urged May to "sack Boris Johnson", the foreign minister, who has undermined May on a series of key Brexit issues.

"Who should I call in London, Theresa May, Boris Johnson or even [Brexit minister] David Davis?" asked Weber, a key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and head of the centre-right European People’s Party group in Brussels. "We need a clear answer as to who is responsible for the British position."

European Parliament Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt also lamented what he called divisions in May’s government. "I’m really worried about the lack of clarity and disunity on the other side of the negotiation table," the former Belgian prime minister said.

The criticism comes despite a speech by May in Florence last month offering concessions, especially on the Brexit bill, and calling for a two-year transition period after Brexit to ease the impact on citizens and businesses.

The MEPs’ vote, by 557 for to 92 against with 29 abstentions, calls on the European Council of leaders, "unless there is a major breakthrough ... to postpone its assessment on whether sufficient progress has been made", and is "of the opinion that in the fourth round of negotiations [held last week in Brussels] sufficient progress has not yet been made".

Britain has been keen to move on to trade talks, but the EU insists there is progress on the amount Britain must pay to leave, on the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, and on Northern Ireland.

While Tuesday’s vote was not binding, the European Parliament will eventually have a final veto on any deal for Britain’s departure from the bloc in March 2019.

British euro-sceptic leader Nigel Farage — who still holds a seat in the European Parliament — accused the EU of treating Britain like a "hostage" and demanding a "ransom" in the form of the exit costs, but Barnier hit back, insisting it was British intransigence on key issues that was holding up the talks.

"You will never ever find the tiniest speck of vengeance or punishment in my attitude towards you. Never," Barnier told the parliament. "There are still serious divergences, in particular on the financial settlement. We will not agree to pay at 27 what was decided at 28."

The EU says its seven-year, trillion-euro budget should not be thrown into chaos by Britain’s exit, but Britain says a reported ¤100bn exit bill is excessive.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker also said it was too soon to move on to the next phase of negotiations. "We first need to agree on the terms of the divorce and then we see if we can half-lovingly find each other again," he told parliament. Juncker also warned Britain not to try and "go over Michel Barnier’s head" and negotiate directly with European leaders, saying he was the only one mandated to carry out Brexit talks.

The MEPs’ resolution, backed by all the major political groups, is harsh about Britain’s refusal, so far, to settle the exit bill, saying the "absence of any clear proposals has seriously impeded the negotiations". The fifth round of Brexit talks is due to start in Brussels on Monday.

AFP

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