An apparent split has emerged in the European Union’s Brexit negotiating team over whether Britain can agree its “divorce” from Brussels and conduct trade talks at the same time.
The European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt suggested EU rules mean the UK can agree its withdrawal while negotiating its future relationship.
He highlighted a clause in Article 50 of the EU treaties, which states that the union and the UK can agree “arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship”.
Mr Verhofstadt’s comments appeared to contradict the approach set out by European Commission chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who has suggested a divorce deal must be reached before trade talks can begin.
They also appear at odds with Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas’s insistence last week that “if one wants to divorce but to remain friends on the basis of a new relationship, first one needs to agree on the terms of the orderly separation”.
Mr Verhofstadt’s reading of Article 50 is likely to cheer Theresa May and Brexit Secretary David Davis, who has said Mr Barnier’s “sequential” approach is “not practical”.
Answering questions following a speech at Chatham House in central London, Mr Verhofstadt said: “In the treaty, Article 50, we are saying a withdrawal can be agreed taking into consideration the future relationship.
“So you see it is a fantastic political text and it says it all – a withdrawal agreement in the light of the future relationship.
“That is literally in the treaty and that is what we need to apply.”
Mr Verhofstadt backed the timetable set out by Mr Barnier, who said the Prime Minister should aim to conclude talks by October 2018 to give the EU time to approve it.
But the former Belgian PM said he thought negotiations would not begin in earnest until May or June, despite Mrs May’s promise to trigger Article 50 by April to begin formal talks.
Mr Verhofstadt warned that any delay in ending the negotiation could see MEPs, who will need to approve any final deal, being influenced by European parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019.
“We need to start the consent procedure (in the European Parliament) in a quite sensible moment,” he said.
“If it is a few months before the European elections, you know how politicians are sensitive … just before elections.
“So it will be absolutely key that parliament is taken on board from day one of the negotiations, otherwise it will be very difficult to have a green light at the end of the consent procedures.”
Mr Verhofstadt again warned the UK it will not be able to “cherry-pick” parts of EU membership it wants to keep while ditching those it does not want.
But he offered an olive branch to Britons who want to maintain some form of EU citizenship, saying he was preparing a resolution to put to MEPs once negotiations start to be “open and generous”.
Following previous suggestions that Britons could pay to keep EU citizenship, Mr Verhofstadt said: “I can tell you I receive every day tens of letters … (about) millions of citizens who are saying ‘don’t leave us alone. We feel still European citizens, and we want to continue our link to Europe because we are part of the same civilisation’.”
Mr Verhofstadt added: “We are scrutinising, thinking, debating how we could achieve that.
“(So) that individual UK citizens would think their links with Europe are not broken.”