The EU Thinks David Davis Could Be Holding Up Brexit Talks

  • Barnier says trade negotiations could be put off for ‘months’
  • EU praises ‘new dynamic,’ but divisions remain on key issues

EU's Barnier Sees `New Dynamic' in Brexit Talks

European officials are zeroing in on the U.K.’s top negotiator as an obstacle in Brexit talks.

Prime Minister Theresa May had set out in Florence the week before an offer to honor the U.K.’s financial obligations, in what she said was meant to create “momentum” for the talks. Then Brexit Secretary David Davis arrived in Brussels on Monday and promptly declared that any bill would only be settled if a trade deal was also struck.

David Davis, left, and Michel Barnier on Sept. 28.

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

While EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier welcomed a “new dynamic” in the talks, European officials were disappointed by the lack of progress as the Florence speech had led them to expect a more conciliatory U.K. stance, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.

Davis pursued a more combative tone than his boss and his team didn’t go far enough to clarify the concessions May offered in the speech, according to the person, who asked not to be named as the discussions were private. Back in London, Davis is touted as a potential successor to May with one paper saying he’s mounting a bid while pretending to be loyal.

The fourth round of negotiations ended with Barnier saying trade talks could be put off for months while the terms of the divorce are hashed out. While both sides said discussions had advanced, the goal of green-lighting trade talks at an October summit seemed out of reach.

For that to happen, the EU has to deem that “sufficient progress” has been made on the first phase of talks. The frustration runs both ways, according to people familiar with the U.K. position, as Barnier hasn’t told the British what qualifies as enough progress. May meets Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday on the sidelines of a summit in Tallinn, and is expected to flesh out the concessions she made in Florence.

Domestic Plots

The European side is also trying to understand the dynamics May is facing at home as the ruling Conservative Party heads into its party conference next week. May’s cabinet is divided on Brexit, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has made his opposition to her policy plain.

Boris Johnson

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

A week before her Florence speech, he published a 4,200-word essay on his Brexit position, and on Wednesday night was once again pushing for a swift end to EU ties. Johnson and Davis often top the list as May replacements, and most Tory members don’t want her to fight the next elecion.

Guy Verhofstadt, the chief Brexit negotiator of the European Parliament, made a joke of May’s precarious situation in London Thursday evening.

“She chose Florence because Florentine politics in the 15th century make her feel at home, I think,” he said at an event at the London School of Economics. “Backstabbing, betrayal, noble families fighting for power.”

Backstabbing Aside

Even so, both sides said some progress had been made. "It’s positive that Theresa May’s speech made it possible to unblock the situation to some extent and give a new dynamic,” Barnier said at a news conference Thursday, adding that “useful” talks were had on the contentious subject of the bill. The pound strengthened as investors focused on that language.

Amid signs of limited progress, people familiar with the situation said that EU leaders were discussing bringing forward talks on the transition when they meet in October. They could also include language at the summit indicating the EU was willing to accept a request for a two-year bridging arrangement after the split.

The two sides have also moved closer on the issue of the rights of EU citizens in the U.K., with a technical document showing agreement on more than 60 percent of topics in that area.

Still, the role of the European Court of Justice remains a stumbling block, and another issue where Davis appeared to take a tougher line than the premier. May said that during the transition the U.K. would abide by the “existing structure of EU rules.” Less than 48 hours later, Davis told the BBC that the jurisdiction of the ECJ would end in March 2019.

— With assistance by Andre Tartar, Robert Hutton, and Ian Wishart

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