Brexit Talks Show Continuing Divide Between U.K., EU Lawmakers

By Jason Douglas in Manchester, England and Laurence Norman in Brussels Features Dow Jones Newswires

British government ministers on Tuesday presented an upbeat picture of the U.K.'s prospects outside the European Union, as European lawmakers said too little headway had been made in Brexit talks to allow discussions to begin on a future trade deal with the U.K.

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The contrast reflects the continuing divisions between London and Brussels over the terms of Britain's divorce from the bloc ahead of a critical juncture later this month, when European leaders are due to decide whether negotiators can move to discussions over trade and other relations between the EU and U.K. post-Brexit.

Addressing party members and activists at the ruling Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester, England, U.K. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox offered an optimistic vision of a post-Brexit Britain forging new trading partnerships across the world.

Mr. Fox said discussions on trade with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand have already begun, and delighted the party rank-and-file by saying those "naysayers" who predicted last year's Brexit vote would be followed by economic turmoil "got it wrong."

"When people ask if I'm a glass half-full or half-empty man, I just tell them that I'm Scottish and the glass isn't big enough," Mr. Fox said.

Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary and a favorite among party members, in the closing speech of the day, described Brexit as "a democratic revolution" that will usher in "a cultural and technological and commercial renaissance" in Britain.

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David Davis, Brexit Secretary, pledged to fight demands for money from Brussels to settle unpaid commitments to the bloc "line by line," though he acknowledged that Brexit talks are complex and that "one error could cost the taxpayer billions of pounds."

He, too, played up the U.K.'s post-Brexit prospects, saying he is optimistic about reaching a deal with the EU, but reiterated the government's position that Britain is willing to walk away from talks without agreement if one can't be reached.

"There is a determined exercise under way in Whitehall devoted to contingency arrangements so that we are ready for any outcome," he said, referring to the British civil service. He didn't elaborate.

Their remarks came hours after lawmakers at the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted overwhelmingly for a resolution saying too little progress had been made in Brexit talks to allow discussions to begin on a future trade deal with the U.K., highlighting frustration within the EU at the pace of negotiations.

The vote isn't binding on the EU's negotiating team, which will take its cue on advancing talks from EU leaders. Leaders are due to meet to decide on this issue Oct. 20 and 21.

Some lawmakers criticized recent disagreements among British ministers about how to manage Brexit and what sort of future relationship the U.K. should have with the EU. The parliament's Brexit pointman Guy Verhofstadt said, "I want to express a big worry of mine and that is the lack of clarity or I can even say disunity -- at the other side of the negotiation table."

Meanwhile, Manfred Weber, a German lawmaker who leads the biggest bloc in parliament, the center right European People's Party, laid into what he called Mr. Johnson's "attacks against his own prime minister."

"Please sack Johnson because we need a clear answer to who speaks for the British position," Mr. Weber said.

The EU has repeatedly said that Brexit negotiations must focus on major divorce issues first, including the future rights of EU citizens in the U.K., the EU demand that Britain stands by past spending pledges and how to prevent the re-emergence of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. A fifth round of talks starts next week.

The U.K. is eager to shift talks on to trade and other aspects of it future relationship with the EU as soon as possible. Prime Minister Theresa May sought to unblock the logjam in talks with a speech in Florence, Italy, last month, where she pledged to honor British commitments to the EU's current budget, which runs through 2020.

Mr. Johnson denied government splits over Brexit, saying the whole cabinet was united over "every syllable" of Mrs. May's Florence speech.

Write to Jason Douglas at jason.douglas@wsj.com and Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 03, 2017 12:53 ET (16:53 GMT)