BRUSSELS – The European Union's chief Brexit negotiator said Wednesday that Britain must meet tough conditions in divorce talks — and doesn't have long to do it — before the two sides can start looking at a future relationship.
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Showing frustration with what Europeans consider British grandstanding and impatience with a dearth of clear proposals, the EU's Michel Barnier said Britain needs to make "sufficient progress" on all the initial issues — citizens' rights, the bill that Britain must pay to the EU and the Irish border — before talks can move to a future trade deal.
Barnier said the three areas "are indivisible and intertwined," making clear that progress in two of the three would be insufficient to advance to the next stage.
And he insisted that Britain recognize it faces a bill of many tens of billions of euros to meet previous commitments it made as an EU member. Otherwise, he says, there's no point in discussing anything else.
"It's not an exit bill. It's not a punishment. It's not revenge — at no time has it been those things. It's simply a settling of accounts," he said.
Barnier dismissed British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's comment that the EU can "go whistle" if it will insist on Britain paying any excessive bill.
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"I am not hearing any whistling, just the clock ticking," Barnier said, with the March 2019 deadline for Britain to leave the bloc drawing ever closer.
Estimates of the amount Britain that must pay to cover pension liabilities for EU staff and other commitments such as farming subsidies to humanitarian aid have ranged upward to 100 billion euros ($114 billion).
He said questioning such issues as financial obligations cuts to the heart of any future relationship.
"How do you build a relationship which is going to last with a country where you don't have trust?" Barnier asked. Trust, he said "means settling accounts."
Barnier said he "could not imagine that a very great country like the U.K." would not also "be a responsible country and respect its commitments."
After Barnier briefed the EU Commission on the negotiations, he spoke to reporters, and exuded some impatience with the British government for letting valuable time in the two-year negotiating slot go to waste.
After triggering the two-year divorce negotiations in March, British Prime Minister Theresa May decided to call an early election to strengthen her hand — only to lose her Conservative majority and add to the political chaos in a country deeply divided over Brexit.
"We are ready. My team is ready," said Barnier, adding he was even "ready to work through the 14th of July" — France's Bastille Day holiday.
The first issue being addressed by the two sides — citizens' rights for people living in each other's nations — is already posing serious problems. The European Parliament has dismissed the proposals made by May, calling them insufficient and burdensome.
The European Parliament's input is important since it could veto any deal.
Jill Lawless reported from London.