European leaders pushed Theresa May to offer more in Brexit talks while also encouraging the British prime minister to aim for a December deadline to move negotiations on to trade.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said some progress had been made and work should continue so that trade talks could start in December. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also said it should be possible to start talking trade by year-end if conditions are met.
“At this point, it’s not yet sufficient to begin the second phase, but it’s encouraging enough to continue working in order to reach the beginning of the second phase in December,” Merkel said as she arrived at the summit.
EU leaders offered friendly words, in line with the draft summit conclusions that say the EU side should work to be ready to talk trade in December if leaders give the green light. The European side is trying to convey an encouraging message, as it understands May’s fragile political situation at home, according to an EU official speaking on condition of anonymity. Still, it’s clear she hasn’t brought anything new to the summit that would represent a breakthrough, he said.
May is in a bind, caught between the cries of hardliners that she should walk away without a deal and the anxiety of businesses desperate for an end to the deadlock in talks. Her political vulnerability was underlined today as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech on Brexit in Brussels and met with other European leaders and negotiators.
Talks are deadlocked over the financial settlement that the EU wants the U.K. to pay when it leaves. May said in a landmark speech in Florence that she would pay into the budget for two years and honor financial commitments more broadly. But the EU side wants those pledges to be turned into detailed negotiating positions. The U.K. side says May has made enough concessions and it’s now up to Europe to take the next step.
“May has to come up with more clarity on what she meant by other commitments in her Florence speech,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters. The financial settlement will be the “main” sticking point, he said.
May has tried to shift the focus onto a different divorce point, and one that’s an easier riddle to solve. She arrived at the summit asking for “urgency” to reach an agreement on the residency status of millions of people stranded by Brexit.
Earlier on Thursday she sent personalized emails to EU immigrants telling them they’ll be able to stay in the U.K. after Brexit and offered a simple process to secure the right to remain. Both sides have been keen from the start to reach a deal on citizens’ rights.
An EU official said before the summit that negotiators were taking into account a scenario where May would offer a quick deal on citizens as a sweetener, while taking a tough line on the bill.
May will speak to EU leaders at a dinner on Thursday where she will ask that talks move on to the future trading relationship as soon as possible. The 27 other leaders are unlikely to offer much in the way of a response, EU diplomats said. Instead, they will wait until May has left Brussels on Friday morning to discuss Brexit without her.
If no deal on the divorce settlement is reached by December, U.K. would be left with just months to settle ties with its biggest trading partner, increasing the risks of crashing out without a deal.
That is a prospect that Boris Johnson said should not worry the Brits. The foreign secretary said in London “that we will get a deal and it will be a great deal and a great Brexit but with any negotiation you’ve got to be prepared to walk away.”
“We have to prepare for every eventuality,” he said, “and we will come through it very well whatever happens.”