EU tells Britain to ‘settle the accounts’ and speed up Brexit progress

Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier says he asks why there is still major uncertainty over UK’s approach on key issues.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has issued a fresh warning that Britain must “settle the accounts” and speed up the pace of negotiations if it wants a free trade deal when it leaves the bloc.

Speaking ahead of a keynote speech by Theresa May in Florence on Friday, Michel Barnier said there was still “major uncertainty” over the UK’s approach on key issues and asked why it had taken so long to set out its stall.

Warning that the UK had just one year left to make a deal, he said: “The question facing us over the coming months is serious, but simple: will the United Kingdom leave in an orderly fashion with an agreement, or not?

“From our side, I repeat once again that an agreement is the best outcome. It is in our common interest. But if we want a deal, time is of the essence.”

He said the three key issues that had still not been resolved were the financial settlement, the rights of EU citizens and the Irish border.

“We are a few days away from the fourth round of negotiations,” Barnier said.

“I am asking myself questions. I’m wondering why – beyond the progress we’ve made on certain points – there is still today major uncertainty on each of the key issues of the first phase.

“To make progress, we are waiting for clear commitments from the UK on these precise issues. We will listen attentively and constructively to Theresa May’s important speech tomorrow in Florence.”

Barnier warned that May would have to make a substantive offer on citizens’ rights and the financial settlement to break the deadlock.

The prime minister reached an agreement on the contents of her speech in a two-and-a-half-hour cabinet meeting in Downing Street on Thursday, after a week of tensions with Boris Johnson and other former leave campaigners over the direction of Brexit.

She will travel to Florence on Friday to deliver the speech, which is expected to promise that no EU country will have to contribute more financially as a result of Brexit until 2020, and set out a desire for a transitional period of up to two years.

A senior cabinet minister, David Gauke, insisted after the meeting that the cabinet was united on the plan. “The PM has the backing of us all,” he told Sky News after leaving the meeting, which gave ministers half an hour to read through the text of the speech.

Johnson and Philip Hammond left the meeting together in what appeared to be a coordinated show of togetherness, despite representing two opposing factions within the cabinet on how Brexit should be carried out.

Although the speech has been built up into a major event, May is expected to tread a careful line of compromise between the two positions. Johnson wrote a 4,000-word article for the Telegraph last week calling for the Vote Leave promise to bring back £350m a week from Brussels to spend more on the NHS to be fulfilled, and rejecting the idea of retaining regulatory equivalence to the EU in the long term. He has cited Canada as a possible model for the UK’s relationship with the EU in future.

On the other side, Hammond and a number of other ministers want to prioritise remaining as close to the single market as possible and in a customs union, a model that would be closer to Switzerland’s relationship with the EU.

May has rejected both possible templates, saying the UK wants to forge its own bespoke relationship with the EU.