Scramble to clarify EU’s mixed messages on Chequers plan
Brussels — Britain’s Brexit negotiator met his EU counterpart on Thursday as Brussels and London scramble to reconcile divorce demands ahead of October’s summit deadline.
Brexit minister Dominic Raab is a regular in the EU capital, but tensions were stirred this week by reports that Europe considers his government’s exit plan to be dead in the water.
Both British and European officials played down the suggestion that EU Brexit pointman Michel Barnier had dismissed Prime Minister Theresa May’s "Chequers" plan out of hand. But, as Raab and Barnier held their latest round of talks, it was clear British hopes of continuing trade in goods under a "common rulebook" will be a sticking point.
May hopes that agreeing to common quality controls for goods would allow British manufacturers to continue to trade within the EU market after Britain leaves the union in 2019.
But officials in Brussels argue that unless London also retains EU rules on manufacturing and working practices after Brexit it may be able to compete unfairly in the single market.
Last weekend, Barnier told a German newspaper he "strongly opposes" the Chequers plan, and one opposition British legislator has said the French negotiator has declared it "dead".
But EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters to wait for the transcript of Barnier’s remarks to British MPs, and insisted the Chequers plan is still part of the discussion. "We identified where there were positive elements and we discussed also the possibility for further discussions to address issues that still create problems," he said.
Barnier’s adviser Stefaan De Rynck went further, saying in a tweet that Barnier had said "in no uncertain terms that Chequers has positive elements".
But De Rynck also approvingly retweeted another British account of the meeting which noted that Barnier had described the idea of the "common rulebook" for goods as "impossible". British officials do not appear ready to concede this point.
The EU opposes British proposals for an integrated market on goods with fewer regulations on services, which is a mainstay of the British economy.
The two sides have set an October 18 summit as the target date for agreeing on terms for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, giving enough time for British and EU legislators to ratify its terms before Brexit day on March 29 2019.
Few in Brussels expect the October summit to be the end of the matter, predicting instead the theatrical late-night stalemate typical of EU-British negotiations. The matter may be pushed to an extraordinary summit in November.