The European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator has poured cold water on Theresa May’s claims of progress, saying it was zero percent until the Irish border issue was resolved.
May told Parliament on Monday that 95% of the Brexit withdrawal agreement were settled as she sought to assuage MPs in her own party that she was making headway in the increasingly fraught divorce talks.
Telling MPs she had resolved the future status of Gibraltar, issues around the UK’s military base in Cyprus and a mechanism for resolving any future disputes with the EU, she said that ‘taking all of this together, 95% of the withdrawal agreement and its protocols are now settled’.
But today Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, dismissed the prime minister’s claims and said that, as far as the Parliament was concerned, progress remained at zero percent until the issue of the Irish border was settled.
Addressing a debate in Strasbourg on last week’s European Council meetings, Verhofstadt told MEPs: “We are now in a battle of the figures. Mrs May says 95% has been agreed, Michel Barnier says 90% has been agreed. I know Britain has always had difficulties with the metric system.
“If it is 90% or 95% or 99%, if there is no solution for the Irish border, for our Parliament it is 0% that is agreed at the moment.
“We need agreement on the Irish border. The Good Friday Agreement must be protected.”
Progress on the #Brexit negotiations can be 90%, 95% or even 99%, but as long as there is no solution for the Irish border, as long as the Good Friday agreement is not fully secured, for us in our Parliament progress is 0%.
— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) October 24, 2018
Verhofstadt said he was “optimistic” that a deal could be reached “in the coming weeks in the interests of the Union and in the interests of the UK”.
He urged EU negotiators to offer a right to “unhindered onward movement” for UK nationals living in the EU, allowing them to move home and work between the 27 states, in return for a “right of lifelong return” for EU citizens currently in Britain who move away from the country in future.
“I was in Downing Street and they are ready to go for such a trade-off,” said Mr Verhofstadt. “If the Council were to push for such a solution, it is a trade-off that is possible.”
European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans told the Parliament: “The bottom line is we don’t yet have the decisive progress we need.
“The goodwill and determination to find an agreement as soon as possible are there, but it’s also clear that we will not rush a deal through at the expense of our principles or our agreed commitments, most notably on the Irish border question.
“With all of this in mind, we must now continue negotiating with patience, calm and an open mind. The Commission and our chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, received the full backing of all leaders to do just that.
“It is time to deliver and we are getting on with the job.”
European Parliament president Antonio Tajani said that without a backstop arrangement to keep the Irish border open “it will be very difficult for Parliament to vote in favour of the Brexit treaty”.
Earlier European Council president Donald Tusk has said it was Britain which said at last week’s EU summit that more time was needed to reach a Brexit deal and raised the idea of an extension of the transition period.
Reporting back on the summit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Mr Tusk said he was sure that leaders of the remaining 27 member states would consider a UK request for a transition extension “positively”.
He said: “It was made clear by the UK that more time was needed to find a precise solution. Therefore there is no other way but to continue the talks.
“Since Prime Minister May mentioned the idea of extending the transition period, let me repeat that if the UK decided that such an extension would be helpful to reach a deal, I’m sure that the leaders would be ready to consider it positively.
“Of course, I stand ready to convene a European Council if and when the Union negotiator reports that decisive progress has been made.”
Tusk said the EU is preparing for a no-deal Brexit, but hopes never to see it, adding: “The Brexit talks continue with the aim of reaching a deal.”