EU’s Tusk: Brexit Will Be a ‘Furious Race Against Time’

President of the European Council Donald Tusk. (Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne)

European Union Council President Donald Tusk warned Tuesday that it will be a “furious race against time” for the EU and Britain to finish Brexit negotiations by next fall, saying only “moderate progress” has been achieved so far.

EU leaders will be asked at a summit starting Thursday to endorse that proposals move to the second phase of negotiations and include future trade relations. Even if they do, Tusk warned most of the work is still ahead if Britain is to make an orderly departure from the EU on March 29, 2019.

In a signal of rough seas ahead, the two sides are already bickering over the stage-one deal announced with great fanfare on Friday.

The European Parliament’s top Brexit legislator was among several EU leaders criticizing British negotiator David Davis for saying that last week’s agreement between the EU and Britain was merely “a statement of intent,” while they see it as cast in stone.

Guy Verhofstadt said it was an “unacceptable description” to call the deal anything less than a “legally enforceable text.”

Davis’ comments Sunday have caused unease in the EU which is expected to seep into the two-day summit. Verhofstadt told reporters at the EU legislature that Davis’ statement “is really undermining the trust that is necessary in such negotiations.”

It was a reminder of how precious a commodity trust is in the talks, which so far have reached agreement only on Britain’s outstanding EU bill, the joint EU-U.K. border in Ireland and citizens’ rights in each other’s countries.

“We only have 10 months left to determine the transition period and our future relations with the U.K. This will be a furious race against time,” said Tusk in his invitation letter to EU leaders for their year-end summit on Thursday and Friday.

Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier warned Tuesday that “we will not accept any backtracking from the U.K.”

“We will have a final agreement only if the political commitments taken by (Prime Minister) Theresa May in the name of the British government last Friday are respected,” Barnier said.

German deputy foreign minister Michael Roth suggested some U.K. politicians were sending different messages to the EU and to domestic audiences. May’s government is divided between pro-EU lawmakers and politicians who favor a tough Brexit, and fear she may be compromising too much with the bloc.

“One should act and speak exactly the same way here as in London,” Roth said on the sidelines of a meeting in Brussels Tuesday, German news agency dpa reported. He said he was surprised that the British government’s communication in Brussels was “somewhat different” from its communication in London.

May’s official spokesman, James Slack, insisted the British government was fully committed to keeping its side of the deal.

“The agreement that was reached last week is a political agreement but that will move forward into a Withdrawal Agreement which will be legally binding,” he said.

Davis also backtracked on his earlier remarks. He tweeted that he had spoken to “my friend” Verhofstadt, adding: “Let’s work together to get it converted into legal text as soon as possible.”

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