Theresa May’s hopes of conducting free trade talks with the EU from day one of the Brexit negotiations appear to have been dashed by an increasing number of member states taking a hard line on the process.
The British government believes there should be parallel talks on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal and the future trading relationship. The timeline is key to May’s hopes of completing a free trade agreement by the end of the two years allowed for negotiations under the Lisbon treaty.
However, political parties in the Czech parliament have joined senior figures in Rome and Berlin in backing the European commission’s line that there can be no such talks until Britain has agreed to pay its bills and has struck an agreement on the rights of EU nationals.
Britain’s bill is expected to come to about €60bn, although the exact figure will change depending on when exactly the UK leaves the EU.
In a statement, the Czech parties said: “Although an agreement on a future relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU is, from a long-term perspective, a key part of the process, it should be preceded by an agreement on the basic outline of the conditions for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, which will serve as the framework for negotiations on future relations.”
In an interview published in the Financial Times on Friday (paywall), Sandro Gozi, Italy’s minister for European affairs, said it was important to stagger talks. “Parallel negotiations may be interesting for London, but I think they are a bad idea, also for the UK. This is a damage limitation process so it requires even more good faith than usual,” he said.
An unnamed German official also told the newspaper: “We agree with the commission” in reference to article 50.
The Czech parties also said they were keen to prevent tariff or non-tariff barriers to trade following the UK’s withdrawal. However, they expressed concern about the future of their citizens living in Britain and the loss of British input into the EU’s budget as well as the need for a financial settlement to ameliorate the situation for the remaining 27 member states.
They said: “We agree that the emphasis should be on preserving the current level of acquired rights of Czech citizens, not only for those that already reside in the United Kingdom, but also for students and academic workers who contribute to the growth of competitiveness across the entire union.
“Our citizens currently living in the UK have made life choices based on legitimate expectations and made use of the rights granted to them by their citizenship and the membership of the Czech Republic in the EU.
“This should be reflected in the upcoming negotiations. Furthermore, we will endeavour to reach a just financial settlement between the European Union and the United Kingdom with consideration to the fact that the United Kingdom does not want to fully participate in the EU budget in the future.”
Jean Claude-Juncker, the commission president, insists the UK will have to settle its bills before significant talks about the future can begin. On Tuesday, he said the cost of Brexit to the British Treasury would be “very hefty”. Juncker met Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, on Wednesday night.
At a meeting of the EU27 and the commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Brussels last week, it was suggested that Britain was likely to be asked to pay about €57bn (£48bn) in instalments over the next six years.
May had been widely expected to trigger article 50 talks at a European council summit in Brussels on 9-10 March. But on Thursday the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, said he believed the moved would be “delayed a little”.