May Pushes for Brexit Progress at Showdown Brussels Supper

Updated on
  • British prime minister likely to be rebuffed by bloc’s leaders
  • Letter to EU citizens in U.K. is aimed at building goodwill

May Says U.K. to Continue Playing Full Role in EU

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U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will demand that the European Union move Brexit talks on to trade in a face-to-face showdown with leaders. EU officials see a breakthrough as all but impossible.

May wants negotiations to move on to the future relationship and will make her case over dinner for quicker progress at a Brussels summit on Thursday. The EU says the U.K. hasn’t done enough to turn concessions May offered in Florence into concrete pledges on how much Britain will pay when it leaves.

The EU intends to postpone a decision on May’s key demand until December, and even then there’s no guarantee. A senior EU diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he saw the chances of starting trade talks by year-end as only 50-50.

Failure then would leave the U.K. with just months to settle ties with its biggest trading partner, and increase the risks of crashing out without a deal. On arriving, May indicated she herself was not anticipating any developments.

“It’s about taking stock, it’s also about looking ahead to how we can tackle the challenges that we all share across Europe, that means of course continued cooperation,” May told reporters on the sidelines of the council building.

Each side says it’s up to the other to make the next move. May’s team thinks she took a political risk in her speech last month by offering to pay into the EU budget during a two-year transition phase to ensure Brexit doesn’t rip a hole in the bloc’s finances.

At dinner, 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.

Some Hope

Still, there was some goodwill on display on the European side, and the draft summit conclusions indicate that encouraging words will be offered on Friday.

“The last messages we got the last days and even hours go in the right direction,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel told reporters in Brussels. “I fully believe that the positions we have heard six months ago about hard Brexit, better no deal than a bad deal, are past history."

The EU says the offer doesn’t go far enough, as the U.K. hasn’t made clear what other unpaid bills and liabilities it intends to pay, and more detail on that is what’s needed to break the stalemate.

With May facing renewed calls from hard-liners to walk away without a deal, the EU side is aware that her political position at home is vulnerable.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn aimed to take advantage of that on Thursday, speaking to Socialist allies in Brussels before May sets out her pitch. He is also meeting European leaders and key players in the talks. While he’s been a fixture at other summits, he’s got clout after a strong election showing in June.

“As the government’s splits and Brexit bungling become ever more damaging, Labour stands ready to take up responsibility for the Brexit negotiations,” Corbyn said. “We are clear in our priorities: a jobs-first Brexit which maintains free access to the single market.”

Read more: Corbyn Beats May to Brussels, Getting His Brexit Pitch in First

May is unlikely to offer more details about what more the U.K. is willing to pay during the summit, diplomats said, meaning this will be left to a new set of negotiating rounds.

“I don’t expect a breakthrough tomorrow,” EU President Donald Tusk, who will chair the summit, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday, adding that more work was needed over the next two months. “It is still possible” to move on to trade talks in December, he said.

Leaders will call for work to continue in order to move on to trade “as soon as possible,” according to a draft of their final statement obtained by Bloomberg. At the gathering in December, leaders will “reassess the state of progress in the negotiations with a view to determining whether sufficient progress has been achieved.” 

Internal preparations will start so that once the green light is given, the EU will be ready to start talking trade, the draft shows. The German government meanwhile has set out its goals for a comprehensive free-trade accord in a private document obtained by Bloomberg.

In an effort to generate goodwill going into the summit, May released a letter to the 3 million EU citizens living in Britain, telling them she wants them to stay after Brexit in 2019.

Immigrants who have signed up for updates got a personalized mail from the premier, who has long been criticized for using citizens as bargaining chips. She promised a simple process for achieving the right to remain.

“I couldn’t be clearer: EU citizens living lawfully in the U.K. today will be able to stay,” she said.

Standing in the way of a final agreement is the delicate issue of the role of the European Court of Justice.

The rights of EU citizens in Britain, and of British citizens in Europe, is one of three issues where the EU demands “sufficient progress” is made before it will begin discussing the trade deal that will determine the U.K.’s relationship with its biggest market.

The others are the financial settlement -- the thorniest matter -- and how to keep the Irish border as open as it is now when it becomes the U.K.’s land border with the EU.

— With assistance by Nikos Chrysoloras, Viktoria Dendrinou, Jonathan Stearns, and Lyubov Pronina

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