The UK’s record of presenting its demands “at five past midnight” during the Brexit negotiations is developing into a major problem, senior EU diplomats have said, with frustrations now emerging over London’s lethargy over the transition period.
A current cause of concern is Downing Street’s failure as yet to formally seek the EU’s help in keeping Britain in the bloc’s 65 free-trade agreements with non-EU nations around the world, despite fears in Brussels that the process will be fraught with difficulties.
The UK has said it wants to continue to enjoy the trading rights and economic advantages it has today courtesy of the EU’s agreements with countries such as South Korea, Canada and Singapore. The Department of International Trade has said it has had fruitful talks with a host of non-EU countries on the issue.
Yet one senior EU diplomat said on Thursday that the UK was yet to formally request Brussels authorisation or assistance in “rolling over” Brussels deals with the rest of the world.
There are concerns that negotiations with non-EU countries could become complicated, with just 13 months before the deadline to complete them.
“So far the UK has not demanded roll-over of these agreements,” the diplomat said. “If there is such a request then third countries will have to say what they think about this request.”
It is a year since Theresa May first asked for a transition period, a request repeated in her speech in Florence in September.
David Davis, the Brexit secretary, will make a keynote speech on Friday, which it is hoped will form the basis of coming talks on terms.
In part, the UK has been hamstrung in making progress on the transition period as the EU did not want to engage directly on the issue until sufficient progress had been made on key issues in the first phase of talks, such as the financial settlement. This hurdle was cleared on 20 December.
Yet EU diplomats have suggested there has been scant effort by Whitehall to offer clear and and detailed terms on key issues before or since then, despite calls for clarity.
“We are having to guess their positions, and then formulate our own compromise positions – it’s ridiculous”, said a second EU diplomat, with knowledge of behind-the-scenes discussions.
On Wednesday the trade minister Greg Hands insisted to a Commons select committee that talks between the Department for International Trade and non-EU countries convinced him that “none of the more than 70 nations with whom we have held discussions have any interest in disrupting trade flows or in erecting barriers to trade where none currently exist”.
An EU official noted, however, that a joint proposal from Brussels and the UK to split the EU’s existing “tariff rate quotas” under World Trade Organisation rules had been rejected last autumn by a range of countries, despite the move essentially maintaining the status quo in terms of how the rest of the world trades with Europe.
Rather than welcome the continued flow of trade on current terms, economic rivals of the EU and UK, including the US, have threatened to engage in drawn-out negotiations on the issue, to the inevitable detriment of European interests.
On Monday EU ministers, following a meeting with their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, will publish Brussels’ terms for a transition period with an end date of 31 December 2020, as first reported by the Guardian last year. The member states are still divided on whether they could extend the transition period at the request of the UK.
“If there is a need it could update the negotiating directives but we have to bear in mind the statement of the leaders in December that the transition period will need to be clearly defined and limited in time”, one EU diplomat said.
A second EU diplomat added: “But, again, we don’t know if that’s what the UK wants.”
A spokesman for the Department for International Trade said: “Our priority is to secure continuity in the UK’s international trade arrangements as we leave the EU. We have been clear that this will take into account the terms and timing of any implementation period agreed with the EU.”