EU Tells May Brexit Ball Is in U.K.’s Court, Not Other Way Round

  • European Commission responds to prime minister’s comments
  • Fifth round of Brexit negotiations starts in Brussels Monday

May Points to EU in Parliament Brexit Message

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The European Union reopened the war of words with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, saying it’s for her to make the next move on Brexit, not the EU, if she wants negotiations on future trade relations to start.

“The ball is entirely in the U.K. court for the rest to happen,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters Monday in Brussels.

It was a pointed response to May’s statement to Parliament in London later in the day, in which she will say “the ball is in their court,” according to an extract released in advance by her office. May will address lawmakers having met with company executives, including Vodafone Group Plc and Nestle SA, who are lobbying for a soft Brexit landing.

The spat comes at a sensitive time for Brexit negotiations and also for May’s leadership. The fifth round of talks is starting in Brussels on Monday. Progress has been limited so far, despite May’s offer in a speech in Florence to plug the gaps in the EU’s budget that the U.K. will create when it leaves, and an assurance that the country will meet its wider financial obligations to the bloc.

No Deal

Fundamental disagreements remain on the scale of the U.K’s financial settlement and the protection of EU citizens’ rights in the U.K.. At last week’s gathering of May’s Conservative party her government announced that significant work was under way to prepare for leaving the EU without a new trade deal, if the talks fail. 

May’s own position as Tory leader came under renewed threat after a disastrous speech at the party conference and a plot from former ministers and lawmakers on Friday. She said over the weekend that she wasn’t afraid of a “challenge” after being urged to take a tough line with rebels and consider firing Cabinet rivals such as Boris Johnson.

Read more about Britain’s Not-So-Sweet Options for EU Trade Deal

Some observers believe it is increasingly likely that May could walk away from the negotiations in part to show she is still in charge of an unruly Tory party. 

“We would not go as far as saying a walk-out is the base case at this point,” said JPMorgan Chase Bank economist Malcolm Barr. “But we have warning for a while that the atmosphere around the talks was likely to deteriorate, and as it does one should expect the possibility of the U.K. withdrawing from the talks to be part of the story.”

The latest round of negotiations will conclude on Thursday and are the last before EU leaders discuss Brexit at a summit next week. The EU said “sufficient progress” is needed on the separation issues, like the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the Irish border, before it will allow the talks to move on to discussing a future trade deal.

Open 24/7

The EU’s Brexit negotiating team “is available 24/7” and “the timing of talks depends on the availability of our U.K. partners,” Schinas said. 

The U.K. will publish papers setting out plans for post-Brexit trade and customs regimes later on Monday, May’s spokesman James Slack said.

Supporters of a so-called hard Brexit meanwhile turned their fire on U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, with Tory lawmaker Bernard Jenkin writing in the Guardian that the Treasury was “legitimizing EU threats of economic disruption.”

The Times newspaper in London cited unidentified pro-Brexit Tories saying Hammond had to go, after lawmaker Nadine Dorries told ITV that he should be fired for obstructing Brexit. Hammond has advocated a long transition period after the split to allow companies to adapt, and is seen by business as their key advocate in government. Slack said on Monday that May retained full confidence in both Hammond and Johnson.

The clock is ticking towards Brexit day. Britain must navigate a path out of the EU and outline a future trade deal by March 2019, when the country will leave the bloc even if no agreement has been reached. Businesses and the Bank of England want an agreement on a transitional phase in place by the end of this year, to provide companies with the time they need to plan ahead.

— With assistance by Jonathan Stearns, and Robert Hutton

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