EC president dashes hopes of opening Brexit trade talks at summit

Updated: 

The president of the European Council has all but ruled out a green light for the opening of talks on Britain's future trade relationship with the EU at a crunch Brussels summit next week.

Despite Theresa May's call for the leaders of the 27 remaining EU states to show "flexibility" at the October 19-20 gathering, Donald Tusk made clear that he does not expect the council to agree until December at the earliest that sufficient progress has been made on the divorce deal to allow trade negotiations to begin.

And he even held out the prospect that agreement may not be reached by the end of the year, something which is likely to concern the Prime Minister following warnings that City companies want clarity by that point if they are not to start moving staff and functions out of the UK.

Theresa May heads to the Commons to update MPs on Brexit negotiations
Theresa May heads to the Commons to update MPs on Brexit negotiations (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Tusk also said that Brussels was doing no work to prepare for the possibility of Britain crashing out of the EU without a trade deal.

On Monday, the UK government released policy papers on trade and customs which included an outline of how the issues would be handled if talks in Brussels break down without a deal.

These white papers, which set out plans for the UK to operate a "stand-alone" customs system from day one if May 29 2019 arrives without agreement, were seen as an effort to put pressure on the remaining EU states to speed up progress.

But in a speech to the European Committee of the Regions, Mr Tusk said: "We hear from London that the UK government is preparing for a 'no deal' scenario.

"I would like to say very clearly that the EU is not working on such a scenario. We are negotiating in good faith, and we still hope that the so-called 'sufficient progress' will be possible by December.

"However, if it turns out that the talks continue at a slow pace, and that `sufficient progress' hasn't been reached, then - together with our UK friends - we will have to think about where we are heading."

London and Brussels remained at loggerheads over which side needs to offer further concessions to break the current deadlock.

The Prime Minister's declaration that the ball was in the EU's court was firmly returned on Monday by European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas, who told reporters: "The ball is entirely in the UK court".

David Davis and Michel Barnier during the fifth round of negotiations for our new partnership with the EU pic.twitter.com/iQpNgLHN1J

-- Exiting the EU Dept (@DExEUgov) October 10, 2017

Asked after a lunch in Brussels with Brexit Secretary David Davis whether the ball was in his court, European chief negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier replied: "Brexit is not a game. Don't forget it."

Mr Davis was in the Belgian capital for the second day of the fifth round of formal talks on Britain's EU withdrawal, having missed the opening day on Monday.

Mr Barnier characterised their discussions over lunch as "constructive".