EU Demands U.K. Turns May’s Brexit Words Into Concrete Pledges

  • Barnier comments after Theresa May gives speech in Florence
  • Says the U.K. prime minister seems willing to ‘move forward’

U.K.'s May Sees 'Concrete Progress' in Brexit Talks

The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, welcomed the “constructive spirit” of Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech on Friday, but warned that her words need to be translated into concrete progress around the negotiating table.

While her speech in Florence shows “a willingness to move forward,” many of the U.K.’s positions on Brexit are still unclear, Barnier said in an emailed statement. On how much Britain is prepared to pay as part of the divorce, there is still much to work on, he wrote.

“The United Kingdom recognizes that no member state will have to pay more or receive less because of Brexit,” Barnier said. “We stand ready to discuss the concrete implications of this pledge. We shall assess, on the basis of the commitments taken by the 28 member states, whether this assurance covers all commitments made by the United Kingdom as a member state of the European Union.”

In the speech, May said that the U.K. is prepared to plug the EU’s budget black hole during a transitional period that would probably be about two years after the country’s withdrawal from the bloc in 2019. This would equate to about 20 billion euros ($24 billion). But the EU wants more than that, possibly as much as another 80 billion euros in gross terms, to cover past commitments, and it’s unclear to EU negotiators whether May promised to pay for that.

‘Concrete Implications’

“Our ambition is to find a rapid agreement on the conditions of the United Kingdom’s orderly withdrawal, as well as on a possible transition period,” Barnier said. “In any case, the future relationship will need to be based on a balance of rights and obligations.”

Talks resume in Brussels on Monday, with hope on both sides that May’s speech will at least have given some impetus to break the deadlock.

Both the EU and Britain had penciled in a summit in October for the moment when EU leaders would give the green light for talks to move onto a future relationship. That needs “sufficient progress” on the financial settlement, the rights of EU nationals in the U.K. and British ex-pats in the EU, and the Irish border.

“The sooner we reach an agreement on the principles of the orderly withdrawal in the different areas -- and on the conditions of a possible transition period requested by the United Kingdom -- the sooner we will be ready to engage in a constructive discussion on our future relationship,” Barnier said.

Governments around Europe echoed Barnier’s cautious welcome.

  • French President Emmanuel Macron noted “advances” and “signals” made by May
  • Irish Prime Minster Leo Varadkar said that while more clarity was needed, May made a “genuine effort” to move the negotiations along.
  • Speaking on Twitter, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni described the speech as “constructive.”
  • Polish EU Affairs Minister Konrad Szymanski said it was important that “commitments made by Prime Minister May during her speech will be reconfirmed by the U.K. at the negotiating table.” There needs to be “complete fulfillment of the U.K.’s commitments toward the EU” before discussions can turn to the future, he said.
  • In Germany, which holds a general election on Sunday, Mario Ohoven, president of the German Mittlestand group of companies, said May had “missed the chance of a new beginning in the Brexit negotiations,” describing the speech as disappointing. Manfred Weber, the leading European Parliament lawmaker and a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, was just as scathing on Twitter: “In substance PM May is bringing no more clarity to London’s positions. I am even more concerned now.”
  • Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, a key ally of May’s government, said the speech was “positive” and welcomed the confirmation that the U.K. would leave the customs union and the single market.
  • "Six months after triggering Art. 50, it appears that the position of the U.K. is becoming more realistic,” EU Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt wrote in a Facebook post.

European affairs ministers from the bloc’s 27 remaining states will gather in Brussels on Monday to discuss May’s latest overtures. The same day, the U.K’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis will start the next round of negotiations with Barnier, which is scheduled to last until Thursday, while a final round of talks is foreseen before October’s EU Summit.

“It is unlikely there was enough in the speech to convince the EU to move on to the transition and future relationship,” John Springford, director of research at the Centre for European Reform in London, said. “Trust is at a low ebb, and the lack of specifics means that there will have to be more negotiations before the 27 will move on from the divorce to talk about the future.”

— With assistance by Peter Flanagan, Viktoria Dendrinou, Marine Strauss, John Follain, and Alan Crawford

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