UK ‘confusion and hesitation’ means Brexit talks unlikely to move on

Brexit talks are unlikely to move ahead as planned in October because the British government is seen as weak, divided and unwilling to accept the full consequences of the decision to leave the EU, according to European ambassadors.

“It was the plan to advance to a new phase of negotiations in October,” Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, Germany’s ambassador to France and previously chief European affairs adviser to the chancellor, Angela Merkel, told an audience in Paris on Tuesday.

“Honestly, from what we see of the UK’s positions today we will not be moving to the next phase in October. To be clear: the crisis in these talks is not behind us but ahead of us. I don’t know when it will come, or what its outcome will be.”

Speaking at France’s annual ambassadors’ week, Meyer-Landrut said London appeared to be having “real difficulty in positioning itself collectively, as a government and a parliament, with regard to the substance of certain questions”.

A third round of Brexit talks began in Brussels this week with the UK eager to move quickly on to discussing its future relationship with the bloc but the EU27 are insisting sufficient progress must first be made on three key divorce issues.

Pierre Sellal, France’s ambassador to the EU, said that seen from Brussels, the picture the UK gave was one of “confusion and hesitation”, while the remaining member states showed “clarity, unity … a certain degree of serenity”.

Sellal denied reports in the British press that EU solidarity was fraying, insisting that the bloc’s unity was real and founded on the agreement its members reached “very quickly and easily” on “some very simple principles”.

The root of the current problem, Sellal said, was that Britain had made “a national choice, a sovereign choice” to no longer be a member of the EU, but “wants to keep certain benefits of EU membership: single market access, certain programmes”.

He said the impression the British were giving was of “a huge underestimation of the implications, the consequences, of their decision. Forty-five years of life together is extraordinarily difficult to undo. We also have the feeling that there is a certain reticence to accept the consequences of this choice: ‘We want to leave, but we’re not really ready to fully assume the inevitable consequences’.”

Sylvie Bermann, France’s outgoing ambassador to Britain, said that despite the publication of a dozen or more policy documents, it was “impossible to define clearly” Britain’s position on Brexit.

“Negotiations are ongoing, with no obvious progress at present, but uncertainties persist,” she said. “The government is weakened. Ministers adopt very different positions to the prime minister and to their colleagues. There are a number of cabinet rivalries.”

Meyer-Landrut said France and Germany were “in complete agreement” on the Brexit fundamentals, and whatever government emerged from next month’s German federal elections would back the EU’s agreed positions.

He added that the UK would not be able to retain the advantages of being in the EU, such as the single market without the compromises of remaining a member. “You can’t keep the advantages [of membership] and get rid of the obligations,” he said. “It’s not possible, because if someone thought of going in that direction it would destroy the whole European construct.”

He expressed doubts about the UK’s capacity to strike advantageous trade deals outside the EU, saying that in today’s world, sovereignty in trade and many other matters could only really be exercised jointly.

“I am waiting for the big free-trade deals that a small island can conclude to its benefit with the rest of the world,” he said.