EU takes tough approach to Brexit as talks enter key weeks

By RAF CASERT and JILL LAWLESS Markets Associated Press

The European Union's top Brexit negotiator on Monday took an uncompromising approach to the Brexit talks over the next few crucial weeks, saying it's up to Britain to offer solutions on outstanding issues and insisting other EU decision-makers could be more unyielding than he has been.

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Michel Barnier told a conference in Brussels that London needs to provide clear proposals soon to find a way for the U.K. to leave the EU in 2019 but still have a transparent, open border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

"Those who wanted Brexit must offer solutions," Barnier told a gathering at the Center for European Reform.

Britain is hoping EU leaders will agree at a Dec. 14-15 summit to start talking about post-Brexit relations and trade. But the EU is demanding "sufficient progress" first on the Irish border, the rights of citizens affected by Brexit and the bill Britain must pay to settle its commitments to the bloc.

Barnier has said Britain has until the end of November to demonstrate that progress.

On Monday, he dashed British hopes that the EU is prepared to make big compromises, saying the bloc's legal rules and commitments had to be respected. And he said there was no point in him being lenient, since EU nations, their legislators and the European Parliament will have to approve any deal, too.

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Barnier warned that Britain would not get the close free-trade deal it seeks with the EU unless it stuck to a "European model" of the economy. Some British advocates of Brexit want the U.K. to adopt a low-tax, light-regulation free-market economic model once it leaves the bloc.

"Does it want to stay close to the European model or does it want to gradually move away from it?" Barnier asked. He said Britain's answer could be decisive since it will "shape also the conditions for ratification of that partnership in many national parliaments and obviously in the European Parliament."

"I do not say this to create problems but to avoid problems," he said. A late rejection of a divorce agreement in the fall of 2018 by European legislators could create immense problems when Britain leaves on March 29, 2019.

He also dashed hopes for a compromise in which Britain could still use some of the EU's single market of free movement of goods, services, capital and labor.

Since Britain wants to end the free movement of people, Barnier said, "this means that the U.K. will lose the benefits of the single market. This is a legal reality."

Barnier also has been steadfast in insisting Britain should settle its outgoing bill before leaving. Britain has offered some 20 billion pounds (22.5 billion euros, $26 billion), but the EU is seeking more than double that.

The British government's Brexit committee is meeting Monday to discuss negotiations. Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman would not confirm reports that Britain is preparing to increase its offer on the Brexit bill by as much as 20 billion pounds.

"The PM has been clear — the U.K. will honor commitments we have made during the period of our membership," said spokesman James Slack.

But he said "specific-figure scenarios are all subject to negotiation."

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Lawless reported from London.