The EU on Tuesday warned Britain against ‘backtracking’ as it rounded on a top minister for suggesting that London could back out of its Brexit divorce promises if it does not get a trade deal.
Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis caused alarm by saying that a crucial agreement struck last Friday on separation arrangements was a ‘statement of intent’ rather than ‘legally enforceable’.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said that ‘all our points of agreement are now closed’ under the deal made by Prime Minister Theresa May, which paves the way for an EU summit this Friday to open trade talks.
‘We will be vigilant. We will not accept any backtracking from the UK,’ Barnier said at a press conference. 
Asked about Davis’s suggestion that a trade deal could be agreed in coming months to take effect a minute after Britain leaves the EU, Barnier said it was ‘not possible’, adding ‘and David Davis knows that full well’.
EU President Donald Tusk said in a letter to leaders ahead of the summit that there was now a ‘furious race against time’ to reach a deal on future relations.
The European Parliament’s Brexit pointman Guy Verhofstadt said Davis’s comments at the weekend were ‘unacceptable’ and would lead to a ‘hardening of the position’ of the EU.
‘It’s clear that the European Council will be more strict now in saying… we want that these commitments are translated into legal texts before we make progress in the second phase,’ Verhofstadt said, referring to the summit.
The European Parliament will now vote on a resolution on Wednesday which backs the Brexit deal – but which unusually mentions Davis by name, saying his comments ‘risk to undermine the good faith that has been built during the negotiations.’
Britain like a ‘gangster’
On Sunday, Davis told the BBC that Britain would not honour its £35 billion to £39 billion (40-45 billion euros, $47-$52 billion) divorce bill as agreed under last week’s deal if it fails to secure a future EU trade agreement when it leaves in March 2019.
But Brussels has said that while the text of Friday’s deal between May and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker is for now a ‘deal between gentlemen’, it will become legally binding as part of Britain’s withdrawal agreement.
Davis took a more diplomatic tone on Tuesday, saying on Twitter that it was a ‘pleasure as ever to speak to my friend Guy Verhofstadt’ and adding, ‘Let’s work together to get it (the agreement) converted into legal text as soon as possible.’
But Philippe Lamberts, the Green group’s representative in the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group, said Britain’s attitude now would hurt its bid to reach post-Brexit trade deals with other countries.
‘How can Britain be taken seriously globally if it behaves like a gangster in its international relationships?’ Lamberts said.
The EU negotiating guidelines that national leaders are set to adopt in Brussels on Friday will say that phase two talks can start only once the divorce commitments are ‘translated faithfully in legal terms,’ according to a draft seen by AFP.
The guidelines had been ‘Mr Davis-proofed’, a senior EU official said.
The EU has toughened a previous draft so that it now says talks on trade will not start until March, to give the British government time to provide ‘further clarity’ on what it wants from the future relationship.