EU negotiator warns big differences remain over Brexit

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier addresses the media on Brexit at EU headquarters in Brussels on Friday Feb. 9, 2018. The EU and Britain conducted a seventh round of Brexit negotiations on Friday. (Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

The European Union's Brexit negotiator said Friday that major differences remain over whether Britain should be obliged to respect all EU rules and obligations during the transition period aimed at easing the country out of the bloc next year.

Speaking to reporters at the end of a week of technical talks, Michel Barnier also said that Britain has still not outlined its vision of future EU-U.K. relations at virtually the half-way mark of the Brexit negotiations.

Britain officially departs the EU on March 29 next year — the first member ever to leave — but the extraordinarily complex negotiations must be concluded this fall to allow time for parliaments to ratify any deal. This week the sides discussed the nature of a transition period lasting until the end of 2020 which would help provide certainty for markets and businesses nervous about the future.

"Our interlocutors shared with us a number of points of disagreement that I consider to be substantial," Barnier said. "The transition is not yet sealed."

One major obstacle, Barnier said, is the rights of citizens affected by Brexit. Britain does not want any agreement on those rights to apply to anyone arriving in the U.K. during the transition period.

"This is a major issue for us. It is also a major issue for the European Parliament," Barnier said. "The United Kingdom must accept all the rules and the conditions right until the end of the transition, and must also accept the inescapable consequences of its decision to leave the European Union."

Barnier said that Prime Minister Theresa May's government has still has not outlined what future ties between Brussels and London should look like after Brexit despite constant requests for more clarity.

He said he warned his British counterpart, David Davis, this week that "the moment has come to take decisions."

Britain was expected to sketch in some of the details Friday, but Barnier says the British side canceled the meeting due to a scheduling conflict. He did not provide details.

EU leaders have been pressing for information from Britain. Without a clear understanding of what kind of post-Brexit relationship the U.K. wants, they say they might be forced to reach arrangements similar to those the EU has with other non-members and not the special agreement London wants.

As the Brexit negotiations advance, separate talks are being held on one of the toughest issues: how to keep people, goods and finance flowing across the border of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the EU.

Britain has said it would come up with imaginative ways to ensure that there is no hard border between them. Any restrictions could inflame old tensions in the north.

But Barnier warned that a hard border seems inevitable if Britain leaves Europe's single market and customs union arrangements.

"It is important to tell the truth. A U.K. decision to leave the single market and to leave the customs union would make border checks unavoidable," he said.

"The U.K. has committed to proposing specific solutions to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland and we are waiting for such solutions," Barnier added.