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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Britain and EU clash over who takes next Brexit step

Both sides say it is up to the other to advance the stalled talks over Britain's departure from the bloc

British prime minister Theresa May, who is facing a plot to oust her, arrives at 10 Downing Street on October 9, 2017, as Brexit negotiations entered a critical fifth round. Carl Court / Getty Images
British prime minister Theresa May, who is facing a plot to oust her, arrives at 10 Downing Street on October 9, 2017, as Brexit negotiations entered a critical fifth round. Carl Court / Getty Images

The European Union and Britain clashed on Monday after British prime minister Theresa May said the ball was in the EU's court as Brexit negotiations entered a critical fifth round.

Officials from both sides are meeting in Brussels, but chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart, David Davis, are not attending the start, underscoring low expectations for the talks.

This round of divorce discussions is the last before European leaders meet at a summit on October 19 to decide whether there is "sufficient progress" to move on to the trade talks that Britain desperately wants.

The European Commission roundly rejected Mrs May's assertion that it was up to the EU to take the initiative to advance the stalled talks, amid fears that her domestic political woes were threatening the negotiations.

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"This is not exactly a ball game … but what I can remind you of is there is a clear sequencing to these talks and there has been so far no solution found on step one, which is the divorce proceedings," the commission's chief spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, told a press conference.

"So the ball is entirely in the UK court for the rest to happen."

Even before the commission's latest intervention, the prognosis for the talks was grim, with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker having warned that "miracles" would be needed this week to make enough progress to get a positive decision at the summit.

Brussels is particularly alarmed by the leadership crisis engulfing the British prime minister, who is facing a plot to oust her after a catastrophic, mishap-strewn speech at her Conservative Party's annual conference last week.

The embattled Mrs May was set to tell the British parliament on Monday that she expects "leadership and flexibility" from the other 27 EU countries in the negotiations.

"As we look forward to the next stage, the ball is in their court. But I am optimistic we will receive a positive response," Mrs May was to say, according to her office.

"I believe we can prove the doomsayers wrong."

Mr Barnier and Mr Davis are expected to give a press conference on Thursday after four days of talks, although officials said that was yet to be confirmed.

Mr Davis will be in Brussels on Tuesday and is expected to have lunch with Mr Barnier, officials said, while Wednesday's timetable remains empty for now.

The questions over Mrs May's leadership have seriously damaged hopes that a speech she gave in Florence in September, which contained key concessions, could give a "new dynamic" to the talks.

Initially, Mr Barnier had hoped to achieve "sufficient progress" to move on to discussing future EU-UK relations by the end of October, with the clock ticking for a deal before Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019.

The talks have stalled on all three of the key divorce issues — the exit bill Britain must pay, the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and the fate of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.