The EU is pressing for “substantive progress” from Britain on the future of the Irish border in time for a crunch European Council summit just six weeks away.
Chief negotiator Michel Barnier told ministers from the remaining 27 member states that “little progress” had been made on the issues of Ireland and governance since the Council last met in March.
The comments came amid continuing uncertainty over the Government’s preferred option for customs arrangements on the Irish border after Brexit, with a meeting of Theresa May’s “war cabinet” thought unlikely to unite behind a solution when they meet on Tuesday.
Members of two ministerial working groups spent Monday discussing possible tweaks to the “customs partnership” and “maximum facilitation” plans which have divided Mrs May’s Cabinet, while the Prime Minister herself briefed Tory MPs on details of the two options.
Boris Johnson – a backer of the “max fac” option, using technology to minimise customs delays – sought to play down reports of a rift with the Prime Minister after he branded the customs partnership “crazy”.
The Foreign Secretary batted away suggestions that he should consider resigning, insisting that he regarded the PM’s vision of a Britain outside the customs union as “the way forward”.
“What we need to do is, as she said, come out of the customs union in such a way as to enable us to have frictionless trade with no hard border in Northern Ireland and to do unhindered, unimpeded free-trade deals with the rest of the world,” said Mr Johnson.
“We think that is possible, she thinks that is possible, so that is the way forward.”
But the UK Government’s hopes of settling on a scheme acceptable to Brussels were dealt a blow when Bulgaria – the current holder of the European Council’s six-month presidency – said that neither option would avoid the need for a hard border.
Speaking after Mr Barnier’s address to the General Affairs Council, Bulgarian deputy prime minister Ekaterina Zaharieva said: “What the UK proposed doesn’t mean there is no hard border. Their proposals mean hard borders, unfortunately.”
Downing Street has repeatedly declined to set a timetable for reaching agreement on the border issue, insisting that the withdrawal agreement does not need to be finalised until October.
But Ms Zaharieva said: “In June, we need to see substantive progress on Ireland, on governance and all remaining separation issues.”
Her comment was echoed by French foreign minister Jean-Yves le Drian following talks with Mr Johnson in London.
“The time has come to decide and I think it is essential that at the meeting in June there should be important progress,” said Mr le Drian.
“Now we have to go to definitive decisions, and the responsibility for those is with the British side.”
German foreign minister Michael Roth said: “We are concerned that there is no clear attitude and no clear position from the British side.
“Time is passing. We must now make substantial progress.”
Asked about the progress that had been made, Michel Barnier said: “I would say little, not very little.”
There were two rounds of negotiations before the “key rendezvous” of the June European Council summit, he said.
Mr Barnier added: “The clock is ticking and we have to conclude and to finalise this agreement … before October or November, because we have to keep the time for the ratification by the European Parliament, the European Council and the British side.”
I'd say he is a marvellous Foreign Secretary but let's work as a teamJeremy Hunt, on his Cabinet colleague Boris Johnson
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Mr Johnson he was in danger of undermining Britain’s negotiating position with his open criticism of the Government’s proposals.
“On the EU side, if they see divisions in the open, they will exploit that,” Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“If we are going to have these lively debates, we should have them in private.”
Asked if his message to Mr Johnson was to “belt up”, Mr Hunt said: “You could say that. I’d say he is a marvellous Foreign Secretary but let’s work as a team.”
The Scottish National Party’s leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford said Mrs May was “held hostage by her own ministers” and lacked the leadership to “override her Hard Brexit wing”.
Theresa May is showing an absence of any kind of leadershipIan Blackford, SNP leader at Westminster
“Theresa May is showing an absence of any kind of leadership, while her Government is divided and squabbling like cats in a sack in public,” said Mr Blackford.
“It beggars belief that there is still no coherent plan for one of the single most important elements of her chaotic, damaging Brexit.”
Prominent eurosceptic Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg praised the PM’s “straight bat” approach.
Mr Rees-Mogg told LBC Radio that Mrs May was “the Geoffrey Boycott of negotiations”, saying: “She is playing a straight bat, she isn’t giving a great deal away.
“But I think this steady, stable approach is the right one to be taking and is in the national interest.”