Brexit secretary David Davis and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier
Top EU figures have apparently been left exasperated by a lack of clarity from the UK side on its formal positions, which has left them scouring British newspapers on a daily basis for clues.
They raised serious concerns about the lack of a unified message coming out of Downing Street during a series of high-level meetings in Brussels with the Lib Dem MP Tom Brake this week.
Officials also expressed fears about a lack of progress on the Irish issue, and in particular on how to prevent the return of a hard border, something that could “derail” the talks.
Mr Brake, who is the Lib Dem spokesman on Brexit, met with the parliament’s negotiator Guy Verhofstadt as well as officials from the EU Council, Ireland, car maker BMW and the British team in Brussels, UKREP.
Afterwards, he told express.co.uk the European side of the talks had expressed concern about a substantive lack of detail on clear issues and raised fears Ministers are “making excuses” for a lack of progress.
He said: “The Cabinet haven’t yet agreed the negotiating stance that they are adopting in relation to the withdrawal. That was made clear to us by officials, who said it feels like they are negotiating with jelly.”
Lib Dem MP Tom Brake, right, with former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg
There have been at times astonishingly public splits between Mrs May and her Cabinet, and amongst the top table itself, as the PM tries to balance the dreams of Brexiteers with the demands of her Remain-backing chancellor.
Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond are locked in and ongoing power struggle about what a transition period should look like, with the chancellor seeking five years and the foreign secretary as short a time as possible.
Mrs May tried to stamp her authority on her warring Cabinet with a keynote speech in Florence last week, in which she promised Britain would honour its budgetary commitments and seek a transition on current membership terms.
However, despite saying such a period would be “time-limited” the PM did not set in stone a specific length, merely indicating that “considerations point to an implementation period of around two years”.
Mr Brake observed: “As a politician, anyone who says ‘around’ has an ulterior motive. If she’d meant two years she would’ve been specific. Around is a bit of a weasel word with some wiggle room for the Government.
“They are talking about doing different speeds for different sectors, maybe they are building in some slack for sectors that are going to be crippled. It won’t go down well with Boris Johnson and Liam Fox but maybe it’s a recognition of reality.”
It feels like they are negotiating with jelly
The Lib Dem MP also raised concerns about the Government’s current negotiating strategy particularly in relation to Ireland, where ministers say many problems can only be solved in conjunction with talks on trade.
He said: “You have to have a concern that to some extent the UK Government are saying we’ve got to be able to discuss these things as an excuse for not making progress.
“We’ve been told there’s nothing on the table of how the transition period will look like and certainly nothing on the table on what the future partnership will look like.”
On the tricky issue of the Irish border, Mr Brake pointed out that Dublin has a veto over both a ‘sufficient progress’ decision and any final deal it will use to defend its own interests.
He said the “bottom line is that no one has come forward with a working solution that achieves a seamless border” and dismissed the suggestion of keeping Northern Ireland in the Single Market and Customs Union as politically unviable both in Brussels and Westminster.
1 of 28
He said: “I think Ireland’s a major stumbling block for the Government. Nobody wants to flag it up as a stumbling block because nobody wants to be responsible for not resolving that issue because of all the baggage that comes with it and may do so in the future.
“The Irish are quite clear that it’s the UK Government responsible because Ireland isn’t leaving the EU, the UK is. So it’s the UK that has created this issue.”
Mr Brake said the issue is so tricky it could “totally derail” the talks, and called for negotiations on citizens’ rights to be legally “parked off”, so that people are not left in limbo if the negotiations do stall or collapse.
And he suggested there could be a future “compromise” over the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in administering those rights by creating a “double lock” legal system.
The Lib Dem MP said Britain and Brussels could agree a similar set up to the English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) model, whereby both English MPs in Westminster and the Welsh assembly have to independently approve any new law.
He said: “I can see the ECJ as a big stumbling block for both the EU and the UK, but you can see some form of double lock guarantee like English Votes for English Laws
“I think they can concoct some compromise that allows both sides to claim a victory. I think there’s probably a will to resolve that.”