Miracles are needed for progress on Brexit talks, says Juncker

European commission president strikes a pessimistic tone on the movement to phase two of Brexit talks, as EU leaders meet in in Tallinn

29 September 2017, 5:20pm
Jean-Claude Juncker talks to journalists as he arrived for summit in Tallinn, Estonia, on Friday. (Photo: Janek Skarzynski/AFP)
Jean-Claude Juncker talks to journalists as he arrived for summit in Tallinn, Estonia, on Friday. (Photo: Janek Skarzynski/AFP)
Jean-Claude Juncker has effectively ruled out a widening of the Brexit negotiations next month to take in a future trading relationship between Britain and the bloc, despite an acknowledgement by senior EU officials that Theresa May’s speech in Florence, last week, had been “full of concessions”.

“At the end of October, we will not have sufficient progress,” the president of the European commission said in Tallinn, Estonia, at a summit of EU leaders. “I’m saying that there will be no sufficient progress from now until October unless miracles would happen.”

Brussels has long demanded sufficient progress on its financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the Irish border before it fulfils the UK’s wish to move on to talks about trade. The UK has become increasingly pessimistic about getting the go-ahead on future trade talks when EU leaders meet again next month, as was planned under the commission’s timetable for the negotiations, but the government had not entirely given up hope.

A senior EU source said of Juncker’s comments: “Mr Juncker is a commissioner. He believes in miracles. If it will happen, it will be in December.” A European council summit of EU leaders is due on the 14th of that month.

Asked if Brussels expected any further concessions from the British prime minister at Tory party conference next week, the source said: “We believe in miracles, we are not hallucinating.”

Juncker’s comments are likely to reinforce the British government’s fear that the European commission – the EU’s executive body – is acting as a block on progress, although there is still solid support from the member states for EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his team.

On Thursday, Barnier hailed a “new dynamic” to the negotiations, after May’s Florence speech, but suggested talks could remain in a stalemate for months unless the UK agreed to honour all its financial commitments and give concessions over the role of the European court of justice in overseeing the withdrawal agreement.

May had made pledges on the divorce bill and citizens’ rights, which were well received in Europe’s capitals. Speaking in Talinn on Friday, she repeated her hope that the speech would give the talks momentum, which she hoped would be reciprocated in Brussels.

 “The prime minister pointed to the commitment made in her Florence speech to incorporate the agreement reached on citizens’ rights fully into UK law and make sure the UK courts can refer directly to it”, said the Downing Street spokesman.

“The PM also stressed it was in everybody’s interests to agree to a time-limited implementation [transition] period once Britain leaves the EU, to provide certainty to businesses and others in both Britain and the EU.”

One senior EU official described the conference in Manchester, where May will need to tread a difficult political line due to the divides in her party, as “an obvious barrier” and that “things would likely change” by the time the next round of negotiations started on 9 October.

Christian Kern, the Austrian chancellor, said he was pleased May had made clear to fellow leaders during a dinner in Tallinn on Thursday night that she was “not leaving Europe but the EU and is willing to cooperate”.

The Lithuanian president, Dalia GrybauskaitÄ—, said May’s Florence speech had provide “a bit more clarity” but that both sides had to accept that the negotiations were “out of shape”.

She said: “Today we can say the negotiations are a bit behind schedule… We need to acknowledge to each other they are out of shape… We need to find a good solution, good for all.”

Addressing British troops stationed in Estonia earlier in the day, May said the UK was not leaving Europe and was “unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security”. More than 800 British troops have been in the Estonian town of Tapa since April, alongside Estonian and French forces.