STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The European Parliament savaged the British government’s handling of Brexit negotiations on Tuesday, voting against opening talks on future trade and condemning disarray in Prime Minister Theresa May’s team.
The leader of the European Union legislature’s biggest party, a German ally of conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, said cabinet in-fighting was putting a deal at risk and called on May to get rid of her own foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.
“Please sack Johnson,” said Manfred Weber, a leading figure in the assembly, which must approve any deal struck by EU negotiator Michel Barnier before Britain leaves in March 2019.
Opening the debate in Strasbourg, Barnier and EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker repeated their view that a fourth round of negotiations last week did not produce enough agreement for the EU to yield to May’s demands for immediate talks on a free trade deal and a transition to it after Brexit.
Juncker last week said it would take “miracles” for talks next week to unblock a move to a new phase by the end of this month, let alone in time for EU national leaders to approve such a shift when they meet for a summit on Oct. 19-20.
The test the EU has set is to make “sufficient progress” -- which it has not defined -- on agreeing rights for EU citizens in Britain after Brexit, border arrangements with Ireland and how much London will pay Brussels on its departure.
Echoing Barnier, Parliament called on EU leaders by 557 votes to 92 to delay making a decision on that progress “unless there is a major breakthrough in line with this resolution in all three areas during the fifth negotiation round”.
May won some approval for pledging, in a Sept. 22 speech in Florence, to strengthen legal guarantees for expatriates and to pay into the EU budget during a two-year post-Brexit transition. But critics pointed to London’s refusal to let the European Court of Justice be the ultimate arbiter on rights or to commit to paying substantial sums due beyond 2020.
Many were critical of conflicting signals from May, Johnson and others on where negotiating “red lines” lie for Britain.
“Who shall I call in London? Theresa May, Boris Johnson, or even David Davis?” Weber asked, describing May’s Conservative government as “trapped by their own party quarrels”.
“Please no more speeches,” he urged her on a day when Johnson, a Brexit campaigner and potential May challenger, was to speak at the party conference. “Show leadership on content. And the best probably would be, please sack Johnson.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the liberal leader and Parliament’s Brexit point man, urged May to offer “clarity” in her conference speech on Wednesday. But critics of the EU’s approach were also vocal.
Hans-Olaf Henkel, a German industrialist who sits with the British Conservatives, called on Verhofstadt to drop his “arrogance”, on Barnier to stop seeming to want to “punish” Britain -- and on Johnson to stop “stirring things up”.
Nigel Farage, who led the UK Independence Party to victory in last year’s Brexit referendum but saw its vote slashed in the June election, described May’s Florence speech as a “pitiful” attempt to “appease” a “bully” and said she should resign.
“She’s a waste of space. She needs to go,” Farage said. A new prime minister should call Europe’s bluff, he said, and walk out of the EU without a deal if Barnier refused to settle.
Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Larry King