The EU and Britain clashed after British Prime Minister Theresa May said the ball was in the EU’s court as Brexit negotiations entered a critical fifth round.
Officials from both sides met in Brussels on Monday, but chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart David Davis did not attend the start, underscoring low expectations for the talks.
This round of divorce discussions is the last before European leaders meet at a summit on October 19 to decide whether there is “sufficient progress” to move on to the trade talks that Britain desperately wants.
Brussels is particularly alarmed by the leadership crisis engulfing the British prime minister, who is facing a plot to oust her after a catastrophic, mishap-strewn speech at her Conservative Party’s conference.
The embattled May told the British parliament that she expects “leadership and flexibility” from the other 27 EU countries in the negotiations.
“As we look forward to the next stage, the ball is in their court. But I am optimistic we will receive a positive response,” May said.
But the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm which is leading the talks for the EU side, roundly rejected May’s assertion that it was up to the EU 27 to take the initiative to advance the stalled talks.
“This is not exactly a ball game… but what I can remind you of is there is a clear sequencing to these talks and there has been so far no solution found on step one, which is the divorce proceedings,” the commission’s chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a press conference.
“So the ball is entirely in the UK court for the rest to happen,” he said.
Even before this latest intervention, the prognosis for the talks was grim, with commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker having warned that “miracles” would be needed this week to make enough progress to get a positive decision at the summit.
Barnier and Davis are expected to hold a press conference on Thursday after four days of talks, though officials said that was yet to be confirmed.
Davis — at May’s side for her statement to parliament on Monday — will be in Brussels on Tuesday and is expected to have lunch with Barnier, officials said, while Wednesday’s timetable remains empty for now.
The questions over May’s leadership have seriously damaged hopes that a speech she gave in Florence in September, which contained key concessions, could give a “new dynamic” to the talks.
Initially Barnier had hoped to achieve “sufficient progress” to move on to discussing future EU-UK relations by the end of October, with the clock ticking for a deal before Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019.