The EU's top negotiator Michel Barnier expressed doubts Friday over Britain's new Brexit blueprint for future trade ties with the European Union, as he called for "rapidly" settling outstanding issues like the Irish border.
But Barnier also welcomed good points in London's fresh proposal, such as plans for a free trade agreement, after he discussed it Thursday with Britain's new Brexit negotiator Dominic Raab. Raab took up the job following a rebellion against Prime Minister Teresa May's Brexit proposal.
But before talk of future ties, Barnier said the priority should be on clinching a Brexit divorce deal over the next weeks, with 20 percent of the so-called withdrawal agreement still to be achieved.
Britain is set to leave the bloc on March 30, but the two sides want to strike the divorce agreement by late October in order to give parliaments enough time to endorse a deal.
"On the future economic partnership, the white paper (blueprint) raises three sets of questions for which we are expecting answers," Barnier told a press conference after consultations with EU ministers.
He said he wanted answers on whether the offer met EU guidelines, including on the free movement of goods, capital, people and technology.
He also sought to know whether the blueprint supported the integrity of the EU single market and the autonomy of European decision-making.
He cited concerns about border controls, potential fraud and unfair competition.
"We need choices and decisions, clarity and legal certainty," the French negotiator said.
But he said the blueprint contained "several elements for a constructive discussion", including on security cooperation.
Britons voted to leave the 28-nation bloc in June 2016, but negotiations were only launched a year later and have bogged down frequently since then.
Barnier and others are concerned about the slow pace of talks against the backdrop of political discord in Britain, including the rebellion against May over her blueprint.
May's blueprint for the future would see Britain ask the EU for a free trade area for goods through a "facilitated customs arrangement" alongside a "common rulebook".
Brexiteers believe that keeps Britain too close to the EU, while pro-Europeans think it fails to protect the country's dominant services sector, among other gripes.
- 13 weeks -
"We must rapidly find an agreement on all the subjects that are still open in the withdrawal agreement," Barnier said, recalling there were just 13 weeks left.
He listed as a top concern the lack of progress on the future of the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
The EU has proposed that Northern Ireland stay aligned with the bloc after Brexit if no other solution to the hard border can be found.
Under its guidelines, the EU stipulates there should be no "hard border," such as customs checks, in order to preserve the gains of the Irish peace process.
"This requires in particular a legally operative backstop," Barnier said after recalling May's commitment to a backstop in March.
"We cannot afford to lose time on this issue," he added.
Barnier said that is why he had asked his British counterparts next week to work on the backstop, which he calls an "all-weather insurance policy."
But London is concerned the EU proposal would break up the UK.
It has suggested instead that the whole country remain aligned with the EU in certain areas, only until the end of 2021, but Brussels knocked that idea back.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, published a document on Thursday urging the remaining 27 member states and businesses to "step up preparations" for all outcomes, including the lack of a deal.
It warned of disruptions, including to business supply chains.