Michel Barnier hints at end to Brexit logjam with cautious welcome to Theresa May speech

Posted On: 
22nd September 2017

Theresa May today showed a “willingness to move forward” on Brexit by laying out her plan for a transitional period once Britain quits the bloc, Michel Barnier has said.

Theresa May travelled to Florence to deliver her big Brexit speech
Credit: 
PA Images

In a cautious welcome following the Prime Minister’s highly anticipated speech in Florence, the chief Brexit negotiator for the EU said she had shown a “constructive spirit”.

His comments are a signal that the deadlock in negotiations could be set to lift when talks resume on Monday.

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But others were less enthusiastic, with Labour arguing the speech was “very weak, disappointing, empty, and clearly leaves so many questions unanswered”.

Mrs May set out hopes for a two-year post-Brexit implementation period, during which the UK would continue paying into EU coffers and trading inside the single market.

She said freedom of movement will also continue during the transition phase, although new arrivals to Britain from the EU would need to be registered in preparation for a new immigration system.

But she was still unclear on plans for the Irish border, the status of EU citizens already living in the UK and the future trade arrangements she hopes to agree with the bloc.

In a swift response, Mr Barnier said: “The speech shows a willingness to move forward, as time is of the essence.”

He said the request for a transitional period “could be taken into account” by the EU member states, and welcomed the acknowledgement that Britain must pay something in to retain access to services.

“We look forward to the United Kingdom's negotiators explaining the concrete implications of Prime Minister Theresa May's speech,” he said.

“Our ambition is to find a rapid agreement on the conditions of the United Kingdom's orderly withdrawal, as well as on a possible transition period.”

'ONE HELL OF A BUILDUP'

Labour claimed the plan for a transitional phase as a win, with leader Jeremy Corbyn arguing the Prime Minister had “faced up to the reality” his party had been pushing for.

Shadow Brexit Minister Jenny Chapman added: “The speech she gave today had one hell of a buildup and it was very, very weak, disappointing, empty, and clearly leaves so many questions unanswered.

“I think many people will be scratching their heads and wondering what on earth the fuss has been about with this speech.”

Hilary Benn, the Labour chair of the Brexit Select Committee, said the plans for a transitional deal and the continuation of free movement were a “small step forward”.

But he added: “It remains to be seen whether these proposals will be enough to unblock the talks, especially since it is no clearer how the government proposes to avoid the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.”

Meanwhile Manfred Weber, the leader of the European people’s party in the European parliament and an ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel, tweeted his concerns.

The European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt said the UK was becoming "more realistic". 

But Mrs May had a better response from some of her eurosceptic Cabinet colleagues - including Boris Johnson, who sparked a huge row over the speech last week.