TOPSHOT - British Prime Minister Theresa May takes a seat as she arrives for a bilateral meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk during an EU summit in Brussels on October 20, 2017. The EU is expected to say that they will start internal preparatory work on a post-Brexit transition period and a future trade deal with Britain. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Geert Vanden WijngaertGEERT VANDEN WIJNGAERT/AFP/Getty Images
Theresa May before a meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk at the EU summit in Brussels in October © AFP

EU countries have toughened their stance on Brexit, making clear that talks on a future EU-UK relationship will not begin until March and insisting Britain will stay fully covered by EU rules during a transition — while losing its voice within regulatory agencies — after it leaves the bloc in 2019.

Senior national officials have changed draft guidelines on the next phase of talks so they no longer suggest that “preliminary and preparatory” discussions on trade can begin early next year.

Theresa May’s government has promised an ambitious and far-reaching trade deal as the final goal of the Brexit talks, although the EU says a formal accord will have to wait until the UK leaves the bloc and that only a more general “political declaration” will be possible beforehand.

The new version of the guidelines, which alters a text issued by European Council president Donald Tusk after Mrs May held successful divorce talks in Brussels last week, makes clear that EU countries oppose a quick start to such trade negotiations.

Diplomats said member states had been irritated by comments over the weekend by David Davis, the UK’s Brexit minister, that last week’s agreement was “much more a statement of intent than it was a legally enforceable thing”.

Michael Roth, Germany’s Europe minister, described himself as “surprised” by the difference between the messages that British officials gave in Brussels and London.

“We will not accept any backtracking from the UK on their commitments,” said Michel Barnier, Brussels’ chief negotiator, adding that the EU would only conclude a final deal on trade and transition if last week’s divorce deal with Mrs May was honoured. “We will be vigilant,” he said.

In a letter to EU leaders ahead of a summit this week, Mr Tusk underlined the importance of a common front among the remaining 27 members as the negotiations head to their decisive phase. He added that last week’s deal only signified “moderate progress, since we only have ten months left to determine the transition period and our future relations with the UK.” He said: “This will be a furious race against time, where again our unity will be key.”

The draft text seen by the Financial Times now says the discussions on trade will begin only after the bloc’s governments agree additional guidance for the talks between themselves to elaborate on the EU’s position, and specifies that such guidance will only be adopted in March.

It foresees that talks with the UK between January and March next year will instead be focused on the conditions the EU will set for the transition period that Mrs May seeks of about two years after 2019.

It reiterates that during the transition period the UK will have to comply fully with EU trade policy — and not strike its own deals — even though the country is due in 2019 to fall out of trade agreements with more than 50 nations that have struck accords with the EU.

The draft also says that, once the UK leaves the bloc, it will lose not just its voting rights in EU institutions but also any right to “participate in the decision-making of the Union bodies, offices and agencies”. It adds that the UK will have to comply with any new EU rules produced during the transition, including technical standards set by the bloc’s roughly 40 specialised agencies, which cover sectors ranging from food standards to maritime safety.

UK groups from sectors including chemicals, pharmaceuticals and airlines have asked to remain under EU rules even after the transition, so as to prevent obstacles to trade and avoid duplicating or increasing regulations.

This week’s EU summit is set to give the formal green light to the next stage in Brexit talks after last week’s divorce deal.

Officials said the bloc was resolved to prevent any backsliding in Britain’s commitments, although they said Mr Davis’s remarks had not been discussed at the meeting of senior national officials in Brussels on Monday.

One senior EU official said the text was “Davis-proof”.

The officials added that the changes made to the draft text reflected concern in Berlin and other capitals that the EU should not be too quick to make commitments on the future relationship that would take the pressure off the UK to settle outstanding Brexit divorce questions — also a strong concern of the European Parliament.

Sven Mikser, the Estonian minister chairing a meeting of ministers preparing for the leaders’ summit, said he was confident that Brexit talks would now progress into their next phase.

“I’m positive that we’ll be able to reach a point where heads of state and government can decide to move on to the second phase of the negotiation so there has been sufficient progress that would allow us to start discussing the future relationship”, Mr Mikser said.

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