Van Rompuy: "Zero" chance of Britain being ready for Brexit trade talks

Former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy

Britain's chances of being ready to begin EU trade negotiations by the next round of trade talks in October are "in the neighbourhood of zero", former European Council president Herman van Rompuy warned today.

The stark warning comes days after David Davies admitted Brexit negotiations were proving "tough and at times confrontational" as he told MPs there was a yawning gap in how the two sides saw the UK's divorce bill.

The EU has made clear that talks on any future deal would begin only once enough progress has been made on the UK's initial divorce bill and on Tuesday the Brexit Secretary said there were "significant differences" and "very different legal stances" over how much was owed.

And today Mr van Rompuy derided the chances of the next round of negotiations going ahead on schedule.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'If there is no breakthrough, for instance in the financial settlement... if you don't have that type of agreement I don't see how you can call it sufficient progress."

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Mr van Rompuy dismissed the UK's draft immigration policy, leaked earlier this week, which suggested an immediate end to freedom of movement after Brexit.

'If you are not accepting one of the four freedoms, freedom of movement, then you have a problem,' he said.

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'Good luck negotiating a smooth and sufficient transient. For me it's hampering a stable transition period.'

Mr Davis boasted earlier this week that the UK side had surprised EU negotiators by going through their financial demands "line by line", saying that, while the UK would honour its financial commitments to the EU, the latter was trying to use the increasingly tight timetable for concluding talks to bounce Britain into a deal.

Any hold-up over how much the UK must pay to leave will increase the chances of it crashing out of the Union without any deal on future trade arrangements.

The next round of talks are due to begin on September 18, with phase one due to conclude on October 9 and EU leaders meeting 10 days later to decide if enough progress has been made for trade talks to begin.

First Secretary of State and de facto Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green, appearing on the same programme, dismissed Mr van Rompuy's estimates as 'too pessimistic'.

He said: 'I think, clearly, these are complicated negotiations but there are several rounds to go.

'Indeed, we have said we want to increase the pace of them. We want them to go on. There have been some significant agreements made already so the negotiations will be tough but we'll see what happens between now and October.'

Meanwhile, the BBC reported that papers it had seen suggested the EU wants Northern Ireland to have a different Brexit deal to the rest of the UK.

It claimed the document said the UK should take responsibility for finding a "unique solution" so people can work, go to school or get medical treatment either side of the Irish border.

Details will be published by the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier later.

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