Slow progress in Brexit talks

Today's press conference revealed tensions between the two sides - and worryingly slow progress

Little progress has been achieved in this week’s Brexit talks, leading to concerns that time is running out for the UK and EU to reach a deal before the UK exits at midnight on March 29, 2019.

Matters are also not yet moving fast enough for EU negotiator Michel Barnier to recommend to the European Council in October that parallel ‘second phase’ talks on the future trading relationship should start, he said today.

Despite some progress on certain areas of expat rights (see more below), including frontier workers, recognition of qualifications, state pensions and healthcare, many areas of disagreements on expats remain – and there have been clashes over the UK’s ‘exit bill’.

With regard to the Northern Ireland border – a third area which the EU says is a priority before ‘second phase’ talks – Mr Barnier said “fruitful” discussion took place.

Nonetheless he told journalists that “we did not get decisive progress on any of the main subjects” of the exit deal.

“On citizens’ rights – we have clarified a few points but we need to go further to reassure citizens,” Mr Barnier said, highlighting problems this summer when “over 100” EU or EEA citizens wrongly received “deportation letters” in the UK. He said this showed there was a need to ensure citizens’ rights are directly enforceable in national courts and under control of the ECJ – “a point on which we disagree today”.

He said because “time is flying”, the EU is prepared to intensify the rhythm of the negotiations.

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The UK’s lead negotiator David Davis said there was “some concrete progress”, but “flexibility and imagination” was needed to find the best deal and there was “some way to go”.

“We have shown a willingness to discuss creative solutions in this area and now is the time for the commission to match it,” he said.

They had “engaged in detail” on the core matters of citizens’ rights, Ireland and the bill this week, he said.

On citizens’ rights he said: “Both sides have agreed to protect the rights of frontier workers, to cover future social security contributions, to protect existing healthcare rights and arrangements for EU27 citizens in the UK and UK nationals in the EU – the Ehic arrangements – it’s good news for example for British pensioners in the EU who can have their healthcare arrangements protected where they live and have an Ehic when they travel to other member states.

“On economic rights, we’ve secured the right for British citizens in the EU27 to be able to set up and manage a business in a member state of residence, and vice versa, and we’ve made progress on protecting the recognition of qualifications for British citizens in the EU27 and EU27 in the UK.”

An updated table has been published showing areas of agreement and disagreement on expat rights: at this link.

It shows:

  • Both sides agree to protect rights of those who are frontier workers on exit day.
  • There is a renewed disagreement on “further movement rights”. The EU says Britons in the EU should only retain the right to live and work in the country where they are living on exit day; the UK says any Britons living in EU27 countries on exit day should maintain all the same rights if they later move to another EU country; the UK also says the same should apply if they want to undertake any ‘cross-border activity’ (such as living in France and working in Italy) after exit day.
  • On the ‘aggregation’ of state pension rights, under the EU pension arrangement, both parties now agree to recognise contributions made both before and after the exit day.
  • On healthcare, both parties agree that responsibility for funding someone’s healthcare lies with the country that pays their state pension. Both parties also now agree that UK pensioners living in the EU27 can retain Ehic cards to use on visits in other parts of the EU. The UK however wants the Ehic system to remain in operation with a “broad scope”, even for people who are not in any “cross-border situation” on exit day, whereas the EU disagrees with this. (Connexion takes this to mean the UK wants, for example, Britons living in the UK to retain the chance to use Ehics to visit the EU after Brexit day).
  • There are areas of both agreement and disagreement on recognition of qualifications. The EU says recognition should apply to qualifications of existing expats and frontier workers before exit day and relating to qualifications obtained before exit day. The UK says recognition should not just be for existing expats/frontier workers and it should include qualifications that people are studying for before exit day.
    The UK says it should not be necessary to have carried out any formalities to have the equivalence of UK qualifications recognised by the EU host state before exit day, whereas the EU is not specific on this point, only confirming that it will respect qualifications that have been validated as equivalent before exit day, or ones where a validation application is being processed on exit day. The EU claims that the possibility of validation of qualifications after exit day is ‘outside the scope’ of the exit deal.
    The EU says an expat’s qualification will only be recognised in the host state; the UK says recognition should continue to apply throughout the EU.

 Mr Barnier told journalists his approach to the negotiations is based on clear instructions from the European Council and the resolution passed in April by the Parliament, and anyone who expects he will deviate from them is wasting their time.

He added the EU’s guidelines say protecting the EU’s legal order and the integrity of the single market are core principles.

Refering to papers published by the UK on matters such as future customs arrangements, he said: “The single market, the EU capacity to regulate, to supervise, to enforce our laws, must not and will not be undermined by Brexit.

“The UK strongly contributed to the development of our single market which is the foundation of the EU. It understands very well how it works…

“The UK wants to take back control, to have its own standards and regulations. But it also wants to have these recognised automatically in the EU – that’s what the UK papers ask for. This is simply impossible. You cannot be outside the single market and shape its legal order.”

He added there remained areas where the two sides still need to build trust, including citizens’ rights and the financial settlement.

“It would not be fair for the 27 to pay for obligations undertaken as 28… But this week the UK explained that their obligations will be limited to the last EU budget payment before departure. Yet we have joint obligations towards third countries, for example we have guaranteed long-term loans to Ukraine together, we jointly support development in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries… After this week it is clear the UK does not feel legally obliged to honour these obligations after departure.

“We have also jointly committed to support innovative enterprises, and green infrastructure in European regions until 2020 – these are not recognised by the UK as legal obligations.

“With such uncertainty how can we build trust and start discussing the future relationship?”

Mr Davis said the UK had a duty to taxpayers to “interrogate rigorously” the commission’s position, therefore during this week negotiators have presented their legal analyses of the matters that the EU says should be covered by the bill.

“It is fair to say, across the piece, we have a very different legal stance. But… the settlement should be in accordance with law and in the spirit of the UK’s continuing partnership with the EU.”

He added: “My message to Michel and his team as we turn our heads to the next round of talks is: Let’s continue to work together constructively to put people above process.”

Asked if the UK was starting to accept that leaving the EU meant losing some advantages, Mr Barnier said: “When I read some of the papers David has sent me on behalf of the British government, in some proposals I see a sort of nostalgia in certain requests that consist of wanting to continue to benefit from the advantages of the single market or the EU without being a part of them. But Brexit means Brexit and leaving the single market means leaving the single market. That’s the decision and it has consequences.”

Mr Davis said:“I wouldn't confuse a belief in the free market for nostalgia."

The next talk rounds are scheduled to start on September 18 and October 9. Other key events coming up will include the German elections on September 24 and the European Council summit on October 20 to 21.

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