European officials have criticised the UK negotiating team for being unprepared and failing to produce a consistent position on Brexit.

For the European leaders, the UK needs to settle its economic obligations and resolve disagreements over citizens’ rights and the Irish border, before any discussion of a future relationship commences. 

The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, attacked the UK government for its unsatisfactory Brexit papers and unclear position. Juncker complained: “I have read with all necessary attention all the position papers drawn up by the UK government but none of them really give me satisfaction, so there is an enormous amount of questions that need to be resolved.”

He also warned: “We need to be crystal-clear that we will commence no negotiations on the new relationship — particularly a new economic and trade relationship — between the UK and the EU before all these [separation] questions are resolved.” Juncker said that the UK avoided “showing all its cards,” but “First of all we settle the past before we look forward to the future.” For Juncker settling the Brexit bill, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the European citizens’ status are issues that need to be resolved first.

Michael Huether, the head of the German think tank German Institute for Economic Research also attacked British officials and said that they “haven’t achieved anything” in negotiations so far. The UK’s negotiating team lacks “strategic skills” and has no idea whether to support a soft or hard Brexit, he said.

Huether added: “This is the truly disturbing thing. We are way past one year after the Brexit vote and, in fact, the British government don't seem to be well-positioned. They are not in agreement about what kind of Brexit it should be at the end of the day. Because first it was a hard Brexit, then it was said that no deal is better than a bad deal. Now they are slowly realising any deal is better than a bad one."

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, was also worried about the UK’s lack of clarity and seriousness. He called for the UK to begin “negotiating seriously” and define a clear position on all the separation issues: “We need UK papers that are clear in order to have constructive negotiations. And the sooner we remove the ambiguity the sooner we will be in a position to discuss the future relationship and to a transitional period.”

The UK’s position

Despite the EU’s insistence on dealing with certain issues first, the UK government is also continuing to demand that negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal should start as soon as possible. Theresa May’s spokeswoman said on Tuesday that the UK wanted to discuss all these issues, both separation and future relationship, at the same time, and criticised the EU for its lack of “imagination and flexibility when it comes to these discussions.” The spokeswoman explained that many of these issues were entangled, so it is impossible to discuss one without the other: “There are lots of issues there where we believe you can’t separate withdrawal from future relationship, and that’s what we’re seeking to agree by October council – that we can move on to talk about our future relationship.”

She reiterated the government’s positivity about the negotiations and said: “We have just begun the third round today; we felt the first two rounds were positive and constructive, and as you’ve seen over the summer we’ve published numerous position papers, as well as future partnership papers. We’ll see where we get to on Thursday, but we believe we’re in a good position, and would like to move on to discuss our future relationship.”

Tory MP criticises the EU

British Conservative politician and leader of the opposition between 1997 and 2001, William Hague, has come to the government’s rescue and condemned Michel Barnier and the EU’s negotiating team for wasting time. Baron Hague of Richmond, a well-known Eurosceptic who was criticised in 2001 for his Conservative party speech and for drawing a prejudiced image of Britain as a “foreign land,” is now complaining that the talks are stalling and that France and Germany need to interfere and “push things forward.” In an article in the Telegraph, Hague accused the EU for not being flexible and, he even went as far as to blame the EU for Brexit. As he wrote: “Had the EU been prepared to let David Cameron limit, in some circumstances, migration into the UK, they could quite easily have kept us in.”  He also tried to draw similarities between Grexit and the EU’s stance with the situation in the UK, which are two completely unrelated events and the results of different political forces.

Hague cannot complain for Brexit and then argue that the EU negotiating team is wasting time. The EU has all the time in the world, and, unfortunately, the UK needs to make up its mind about which kind of Brexit it wants to pursue. With Labour’s declaration that the UK should remain in the single market and customs union, Corbyn’s move has driven the UK one step closer to the possibility of a Norway-style—access to single market, but not ability to vote over EU rules—relationship with the EU and has made his party more attractive to businesses, which want a soft Brexit. This immediately makes things harder for the UK government, and shows that “any clean break with the EU is pure Tory fantasy.”

Brexit Secretary David Davis began the third round of the negotiations yesterday at 5pm in Brussels, before returning to London to attend meetings. He returns on Wednesday and will complete this round with Thursday’s press conference.