Divorce bill deadlock: EU laments progress on Brexit

BRUSSELS — Brexit talks have hit a deadlock on the key issue of Britain's exit bill in the divorce, the European Union's chief negotiator said Thursday, adding that the slow-moving talks won't be broadened anytime soon to include future trade relations.

Giving a downbeat assessment of the latest round of negotiations, EU negotiator Michel Barnier said despite the talks' recent "constructive spirit ... we haven't made any great steps forward."

On the question of how much Britain has to pay to settle its financial commitments to the bloc, he said: "We have reached a state of deadlock, which is disturbing."

Barnier said he would not be able to recommend to EU leaders meeting next week that "sufficient progress" has been made to broaden the talks to discussing future EU-British relations, including trade.

The leaders meet in Brussels on Oct. 19-20, and with time short to seal a deal it had been hoped they would agree to widen the talks.

The EU says this can only happen when there has been progress on the issues of the financial settlement, the rights of citizens affected by Brexit and the status of the Northern Ireland-Ireland border.

Britain is on track to leave the 28-nation bloc in March 2019. Many businesses are worried that Britain could leave the EU without a trade deal in place, which would mean tariffs on exports from both sides, reams of red tape and chaos at European ports.

The British pound fell Thursday on news of the slow progress, trading 0.6 percent lower at $1.3142.

Britain says its exit terms are closely intertwined with those on future relations like trade and must be discussed together.

"I hope the member states will see the progress we have made and take a step forward" next week, British Brexit envoy David Davis told reporters.

"We would like them to give Michel the means to broaden the negotiations. It's up to them whether they do it. Clearly I think it's in the interests of the United Kingdom and the European Union that they do," Davis said.

Barnier said the two would work to achieve "sufficient progress" in time for a subsequent meeting of EU leaders in December.

Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, but the talks must be completed within about a year to leave time for EU states' national parliaments to ratify the Brexit agreement.

European estimates on the size of the divorce bill have varied from around 60 billion euros to 100 billion euros ($70 billion to $120 billion), but British Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative government has rejected such numbers without clearly explaining how the amount should be calculated.

"The U.K. repeated that it was still not ready to spell out these commitments," Barnier said. "There have therefore been no negotiations on this subject."

However, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson insisted the U.K. had "set out what we think are some pretty convincing ideas on citizenship, on money" and on other issues.

"We're looking for some urgency from our friends and partners," he told reporters in London. "Time to put a tiger in the tank and get this thing done."

The negotiations appear to be moving at a snail's pace and each round leaves a sense of deja vu, with Barnier lamenting the lack of movement and Davis appealing for more European flexibility.

Thursday's news conference, however, was brightened briefly by an unexpected visitor dressed as Superwoman promoting her book on why Europe needs one.

Mindful that the clock is ticking, Barnier reaffirmed that parting with "no deal will be a very bad deal."

"To be clear, on our side, we will be ready to face any eventualities, and all the eventualities," he said.

The British government is under pressure from euroskeptic lawmakers at home to increase planning for a "no deal" Brexit — leaving the bloc without a trade agreement.

Pro-Brexit lawmakers are urging May's government to set aside money for new customs posts and other infrastructure that would be needed in the event of such an exit. Some even say Britain should walk away from the negotiations if the EU does not agree to start the next phase by the end of the year.

The Brexit spokesman for Britain's opposition Labour Party accused the government of risking a collapse in the talks with its infighting. Keir Starmer said crashing out without an EU trade deal "would be catastrophic for jobs and living standards and must be rejected as a viable option."

He urged Davis to ask for an emergency round of talks before next week's EU summit in an attempt to unblock the logjam.


Lawless reported from London.

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