Sunday

21st Jan 2018

EU puts May under pressure over Brexit and 'Boris'

  • British prime minister Theresa May has had to insist she is in full control of her own Brexit policy, during the Conservative party conference in Manchester. (Photo: Council of the European Union)

The EU is putting British prime minister Theresa May under pressure to give more clarity over Brexit talks - and even to sack her foreign minister to assert her authority on her own party.

"If on the other side of the negotiating table there is a lack of clarity, there is even disunity [within the UK government], it's difficult to make progress," the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said on Tuesday (3 October) in a debate in Strasbourg.

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  • EPP leader Manfred Weber explicitly demanded Boris Johnson be sacked as UK foreign minister today. (Photo: Parsons_Boris_whitehall-1069)

He said that he hoped that May, in her closing speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on Wednesday, "will give further clarity [and that] concrete proposals can be put on the negotiations table".

MEPs were discussing the lack of progress in the Brexit talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, before adopting a resolution that states their position on the talks.

As the Conservative Party conference, which opened on Sunday and will close on Wednesday, has signaled a hardening of the party's position on Brexit, MEPs expressed their frustration over May's negotiation strategy and her weakness within her party and government.

The UK government is "too vague," complained the leader of the Socialists&Democrats (S&D) group Gianni Pittella.

"Show leadership on content," Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-right EPP group, called on the UK prime minister.

'Please sack Johnson'

"Theresa May, please don't put your party first. Put please Britain first, put please the citizens first … And the best probably would be, please sack Johnson, because we need a clear answer who responsible for the British position," he said.

 In declarations and press articles in recent weeks, foreign secretary Boris Johnson has openly contradicted May's positions.

In an interview to the Sun tabloid ahead of the party conference, he put pressure on May by insisting that a transition period after Brexit should not last "a second more" than the two years she had outlined in her keynote Florence speech last month.

"When I read the text of Boris Johnson on Brexit negotiations, I have no clarity when I compare it [to what May is saying]," Weber said at a later press briefing.

He added that sacking Johnson from the cabinet "would give clarity that May is the boss and we need clarity."

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker noted that May's Florence speech was "conciliatory" and "struck an optimistic tone on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the Union."

But "speeches are not negotiating positions," he warned.

He said that "when it comes to Brexit, we still cannot talk about the future with any real clarity."

"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 insisted, adding that "work still remains to be done."

Michel Barnier, the EU Brexit negotiator, pointed out that the list of issues for which the UK must bring detailed proposals includes citizens' rights, the "indispensable role" of the European Court of Justice, the future of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and the financial settlement.

Barnier did not comment on the British internal divisions or lack of clarity. But he said that he would be "dignified, calm and firm on EU principles."

"We will remain resolutely constructive, because we want to succeed," he said.

Applause for Barnier

The EU negotiator said that the UK's request for a transition period after it leaves the EU and before it strikes a agreement on future relationships "was not surprise".

He noted that "time to discuss it has not come" and that he will need a specific mandate for that.

He was seconded by the Estonian deputy minister for EU affairs, Matti Maasikas, whose country currently holds the six-month EU presidency.

"In order to be able to consider a transition, we need more clarity than we've been provided [with] so far," Maasikas said, adding that the UK's 27 EU partners were "still wondering about conclusions we can draw about the progress" in talks.

Barnier received backing and applause from MEPs as well as a clear support from Juncker.

"For those that think that the UK should just 'go over Michel Barnier's head', I remind them that the Commission has been appointed by the 27 member states and my choice of Michel Barnier had been welcomed by them," the EU executive boss said.

"He acts on their behalf on the basis of clear negotiating mandates," Juncker added.

The MEPs adopted the resolution with 557 votes for, and 92 against.

The resolution states that " the absence of any clear proposals [from the UK] has seriously impeded the negotiations" and insists that "an orderly withdrawal" is necessary before taking about a future relationship.

This article was corrected on 4 October. It incorrectly said that Matti Maasikas is Estonia's deputy prime minister. He is deputy minister for EU affairs.

May seeks EU grace period

Eagerly awaited Brexit speech was short on details, but May pledged to honour financial commitments while calling for a two-year transition deal after the UK left.

Progress made in Brexit talks, but not enough

Fourth round of Brexit talks saw cooperative tone in a shift after May's speech, but there serious differences on financial commitments and EU court remained.

Johnson challenges May on hard Brexit

In yet an another attempt at becoming Tory leader, the UK foreign secretary argues for a hard Brexit, while PM Theresa May is expected to set out her strategy, including a financial settlement with the EU, on Friday.

Brexit talks enter pre-summit round

Brexit talks resume on Monday, but too little progress on issues such as citizens' rights, mean EU leaders unlikely to launch trade negotiations this month.

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