There is growing frustration in Brussels as Brexit negotiations rumble on with only a few days left before an official departure date for the U.K.
“Let’s get on with it. We have bigger fish to fry,” an EU official with knowledge of the negotiations but who preferred to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation, told CNBC Sunday regarding the mood in Brussels and ahead Tuesday’s vote in London.
Talks between the U.K. and the EU stalled over the weekend, after both sides failed to come to an agreement over the “Irish backstop” — an insurance policy which aims to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
This issue is not new in the Brexit process, with certain U.K. lawmakers heavily criticizing this insurance policy that the U.K. government formulated with the EU last year. It was seen as a key reason why the U.K. Parliament overwhelmingly rejected May’s deal in January.
However, the deadlock is becoming more pressing by the minute ahead of a key vote in the U.K. Parliament Tuesday — and roughly two weeks away from the U.K.’s scheduled departure date from the EU. If the U.K. does not approve an exit deal there’s a significant risk that it will leave without any arrangements, bringing uncertainty to businesses and citizens on both sides of the English Channel.
U.K. lawmakers are due to vote again on the Withdrawal Agreement Tuesday evening, after they rejected it by a 230 vote-margin back in January. Since then, the U.K. has tried to get further concessions from the EU side, but the other 27 countries have refused to change its stance.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, tried to appease the concerns among U.K. lawmakers regarding the Irish backstop on Friday. Barnier said the U.K. would not be forced into a customs union against its will and reiterated that he is ready to strengthen two important commitments that are already in the Withdrawal Agreement.
These commitments state that the EU will act in good faith and it will use its best endeavors to prevent having to trigger the Irish backstop. European officials believe that these commitments prove that the 27 countries do not want to reach a state whereby they have to implement this insurance policy. Given that these promises are written in the Withdrawal Agreement they are legally binding.
Negotiations have dragged for almost two years and the other EU nations have had to deal with different U.K. representatives throughout that time. There has been a constant battle of words between Westminster and Brussels.
While the U.K. has often asked the EU to put new proposals on the table to enable it to approve the Withdrawal Agreement; Brussels has said it’s up to the U.K. to make clear what it wants from them. The EU has also said that the exit agreement that’s currently on the table was something that it didn’t put together alone, but with the U.K. government and Prime Minister Theresa May in particular.
“We have heard what you don’t want, we are willing to know what you want. There were no precise proposals,” France’s Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau told the BBC Radio last week.
At this stage, the EU wants to move on to the next phase of Brexit: discussing new trading arrangements. And if both sides strike a trade deal in the coming year, then the much-hated Irish backstop would not be used.
“We all have to make an effort so we can start the really interesting and important conversation about the future of our relation,” France’s Europe minister added.
The EU has confirmed that there is no planned communication between the U.K. government and Brussels in the coming 24 hours, but that they remain in “close contact.”
May had a phone call with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker Sunday evening. A Commission spokesperson told reporters in Brussels that both “took stock of the work done at the technical level” and that now it’s time for the U.K. Parliament to “take important decisions.”
“We want a deal before March 29,” the spokesperson said.
For the time being, the U.K. is still expected to leave the EU at 11 p.m. London time on March 29.