David Davis, left, and Michel Barnier will meet again on Thursday © FT montage; AP/Bloomberg
Brexit talks are at a virtual political standstill, with no substantial advances made in the fifth round of negotiations, according to several diplomats briefed on the discussions.
Expectations were low for the final UK-EU negotiating round before a crucial summit next week, where EU27 leaders are almost certain to declare there has been insufficient progress to move from divorce to trade talks.
Negotiators were still surprised, however, at the lack of movement in any areas this week, most notably on the big outstanding questions over citizen rights. One official directly involved in the process said: “There was nothing, zero, no progress.”
The British side has taken a more upbeat view in public. While not suggesting there had been breakthroughs in talks this week, Theresa May, the prime minister, told parliament on Wednesday: “We are very close to agreement on citizens’ rights.”
The tactical stand-off in talks provides the backdrop for a highly sensitive declaration by EU leaders next week. Diplomats say this needs to make clear where Britain is seen to have fallen short, while at the same time recognising the progress made since Mrs May’s Florence speech and the potential for negotiations to evolve.
London hoped this would be done by the EU allowing Michel Barnier, its chief negotiator, to enter exploratory discussions with Britain on a transition period, but this was rejected by a German-led group of member states.
Instead, the EU side is considering beginning work between the EU27 to “scope” transition terms — or start preparing their positions on the issue — before approving talks in December or later.
A more positive outcome, championed by some northern member states, would allow this “scoping” exercise to cover some of the future trade relationship as well.
Mr Barnier will meet his counterpart David Davis for a final session on Thursday, which could still lead to some progress. One of the main British concerns is how to maintain a sense of momentum in public while the EU offers a more unvarnished view of progress made, stressing areas of divergence rather than convergence.
The EU, in turn, wants to avoid being blamed for holding up a deal on citizen rights because of money alone. Some diplomats in the process speculated that this may be part of the reason for the tactical deadlock this week. “Nobody is ready to move yet,” said one negotiator.
Officials familiar with the talks said there had been some minor technical advances but no progress had been made on more substantial issues.
By far the most substantial progress in talks over recent months has been made on the post-Brexit rights of around 3m EU citizens in the UK and 1m British nationals in Europe.
This week’s discussions, however, made no dent on the biggest outstanding issues, including the role of European courts, the family rights of EU nationals, some benefits issues and the administrative processes that will be used.
Specifically, there still remain questions over how the UK will ensure the withdrawal agreement has “direct effect” in UK law and protects the position of EU courts as the ultimate interpreters of EU law — a highly sensitive issue for Brexiters in Westminster.
There was also no movement on two other longstanding areas of disagreement: Britain’s wish to restrict existing rights to bring family members to the UK, so they are no different for UK or EU nationals; and curbs on the right to claim sickness and child benefit overseas.
A possible deal over the “free movement” rights also did not gel this round. Britain had offered EU nationals the right to return to the UK after a stay, hoping in turn the EU would allow UK nationals to move cross-border within the union with full residence rights.
Little progress was expected on financial settlement. Britain has offered to cover at least a €20bn EU budget shortfall up to 2021, but the EU is pressing Britain to clarify what commitments it will honour after that date. Talks this week were cordial but highly technical, comparing methods for calculating different parts of the EU budget.
Technical talks on Northern Ireland — the third main issue in separation talks — are continuing on a rolling basis. Although extremely complex and challenging issues are arising, senior diplomats do not see the Irish question as being an obstacle to making “sufficient progress”.