David Davis has been told the UK has two weeks to offer “clarity” on the Brexit divorce bill - or Brussels may refuse to open trade talks.
The ultimatum was issued to the Brexit Secretary in Brussels on Friday, where he opened the latest round of negotiations on Britain’s exit from the bloc with his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier.
Barnier was asked by reporters if the UK had just a fortnight to sort out disagreements on the financial settlement, and the EU chief negotiator responded with a simple “Oui”.
Davis has previously had called for “flexibility” and “imagination” on the talks, and wants Brussels to talk trade before the final financial settlement was agreed - but European leaders strongly oppose his approach.
Barnier said “some progress” had been made but he wanted reassurances on the divorce bill before he would greenlight discussions on the future relationship between the UK and the bloc.
Davis, meanwhile, indicated he was not open to Northern Ireland staying inside the single market or customs union in order to solve concerns about a hard border with Ireland.
He told journalists he will not accept any solution to the issue of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border that damages the “constitutional and economic integrity of the UK”.
Davis added there had been “frank discussions” on the issue after a leaked paper suggested a hardening of the European Commission’s stance.
Barnier said: “We have to ensure a common reading of the conditions, consequences and implications of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement and the Common Travel Area.
“This should lead us to identify the technical and regulatory solutions necessary to prevent a hard border while preserving the integrity of the single market.
“The unique situation on the island of Ireland requires specific solutions.”
Davis said: “We respect the European Union desire to protect the legal order of the single market and customs union.
“But that cannot come at cost to the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.”
Although there would need to be “specific solutions” for the unique position of Northern Ireland “this cannot amount to creating a new border inside our United Kingdom”.
Davis added the UK was “ready and willing” to engage with Brussels “as often and as quickly as needed” ahead of the December 14-15 summit of EU leaders.
“But we need to see flexibility, imagination and willingness to make progress on both sides if these negotiations are to succeed and we are able to realise our new deep and special partnership.”
Barnier refused to be drawn on speculation that Brussels was concerned that Theresa May’s Government could collapse following recent upheaval which has seen two Cabinet ministers quit, although he admitted the situation was being watched closely.
“I am not going to comment on the internal political situation in the United Kingdom,” he said. “We are, of course, watching it very closely.”
The latest round of talks in Brussels came as May committed to write the date of the UK’s departure from the EU into law - and warned would-be Tory rebels that any attempt to prevent Brexit would not be tolerated.
Amendments to the Withdrawal Bill going through Parliament will spell out that the UK’s membership of the EU will end at 11pm GMT, midnight in Brussels, on March 29 2019.