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British infighting slowing Brexit progress, European Parliament told

Guy Verhofstadt says lack of clarity and disunity is stifling Brexit negotiations.


Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed the 'conciliatory tone' of Theresa May's Florence speech (Matt Cardy/PA)

Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed the 'conciliatory tone' of Theresa May's Florence speech (Matt Cardy/PA)

Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed the 'conciliatory tone' of Theresa May's Florence speech (Matt Cardy/PA)

Divisions among British ministers are hampering progress in Brexit negotiations, the European Parliament’s co-ordinator on the talks has warned.

Addressing the parliament in Strasbourg, Guy Verhofstadt said they would struggle to move to the next phase of negotiations – including a free trade deal – while ministers in London were fighting among themselves.

“There is a lack of clarity, there is even disunity. There are oppositions between Hammond and Fox. There are divisions between Johnson and May,” he said.

“It is difficult to make sufficient progress. It is difficult to make the steps towards the second phase of the negotiations.”

Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-right EPP grouping in the European Parliament and seen as a close ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel, went further, calling on Theresa May to sack Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary.

“By reading Johnson’s attacks against his own Prime Minister, he shows the British government is trapped by their own party quarrels and political contradictions,” he said.

“Please sack Johnson because we need a clear answer who is responsible for the British position.”

The calls came as MEPs – as expected – backed a motion declaring the negotiations had not made sufficient progress to begin trade talks by 557 votes to 92, with 29 abstentions.

Updating MEPs on the talks, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed the “conciliatory” tone of Mrs May’s Florence speech in which she said no EU member state would lose out financially as result of Britain’s decision to leave.

However, he backed the verdict of the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier that more progress was needed on the issues of citizens’ rights and the border with Ireland as well as the financial settlement, before they could move to a trade deal.

“When it comes to Brexit we still cannot talk about the future without any real clarity. We first need to agree on the terms of the divorce and then we see if we can half-lovingly find each other again,” he said.

He issued a warning against any attempt by the UK to bypass Mr Barnier and the commission by appealing directly to EU leaders.

“For those who think the UK should just go over Michel Barnier’s head, I remind them that the commission has been appointed by the 27 member states and my choice of Michel Barnier has been welcomed by them,” he said.

“He acts on their behalf on the basis of a clear negotiating mandate.”


Michel Barnier (Olivier Matthys/AP)

Michel Barnier (Olivier Matthys/AP)

Michel Barnier (Olivier Matthys/AP)

Mr Barnier suggested Mrs May’s offer to fulfil Britain’s EU budget commitments up to 2020 did not go far enough to convince Brussels that the UK would fully honour its financial obligations.

He was applauded by MEPs as he said: “We will never accept for the 27 to pay what was decided on by 28, it’s as simple as that.

“The taxpayers of the 27 don’t have to pay for the consequences of the decision that they didn’t take. So, no more, no less.”

Commenting on behalf of the Open Britain campaign for remaining in the single market after Brexit, Labour MP Stephen Doughty said: “It is an indictment of this Government’s division and incompetence that talks on Britain’s future relationship with the EU may be pushed back and not start for months.

“With every fruitless negotiation round that goes by, the time left to negotiate a deal with the EU shrinks, and the likelihood of a hard and destructive Brexit that puts jobs at risk grows.”