Brexit Talks at a Standoff as Tusk Sets U.K.'s May an Ultimatum

Updated on
  • EU’s Tusk tells May Brexit bill offer needed by early Dec.
  • U.K.’s Davis: ‘We have made all the running’ in negotiations
Why Brexit Talks Might Not Move Forward in December

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is stuck in a Brexit stand-off as European leaders set her a deadline to give ground on the exit bill and the future of the Irish border if talks are to move on to trade before next year.

“I made clear to Theresa May that this progress needs to happen at the beginning of December at the latest,” European Union president Donald Tusk said after a meeting of EU leaders in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Donald Tusk in Gothenburg on Nov. 17.

Photographer: Jonas Ekstromer/AFP via Getty Images

His comments came after May’s Brexit Secretary David Davis called on the EU to compromise, saying Britain has “made all the running” in negotiations so far. “I want them to compromise,” Davis said in a BBC interview on Friday. “So far in this negotiation we’ve made quite a lot of compromises,” he said. “We haven’t always got that back.”

The stalemate is dragging on as time runs out for a deal to be reached on the divorce terms so that EU leaders can agree to start talking about the future trade deal. British officials fear the negotiations could fall apart if that doesn’t happen at the next EU summit in December, although European officials are looking at possible dates in January or February to have another go. 

The U.K. has already agreed to pay into the EU budget for two years after leaving, which it considers a step toward what the EU wants, even if the Europeans say it doesn’t go far enough. Britain has also agreed to the EU’s schedule for talks -- that the divorce gets dealt with before trade. The EU side is clear that it doesn’t think it’s up to them to make concessions.

Davis was grilled late Thursday by German business leaders in Berlin about the U.K.’s intentions on the bill. He said he’d answer that question in a “few more weeks.” May dodged a question from reporters on Friday morning about whether the U.K. was preparing to put more money on the table.

Breakfast Diplomacy

On Thursday and Friday May and her ministers launched a round of diplomacy in an attempt to break the deadlock, flying to Germany, Ireland and Sweden. Speaking to business executives in Berlin on Thursday night, Davis said the U.K. was looking at the EU demands on the bill everyday and was in constant contact with the EU side. From now to the December summit, “we will have pretty much continuous negotiations,” Davis said.

Meanwhile, May and her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson held separate talks with their Irish counterparts against a backdrop of an EU demand to settle the question of the post-Brexit border between Ireland, which will stay in the bloc, and Northern Ireland, which will leave as it’s part of the U.K..

May flew to Gothenburg, Sweden, and had breakfast with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on the sidelines of an informal gathering of EU leaders. May told reporters when she arrived that she’d already set out her vision for a new “economic partnership” with the EU and it was up to the EU to reply. “I look forward to the European Union responding positively so that so we can move forward together,” she said.

New Year

For his part, Varadkar said it was for Britain to make compromises, not the EU. “If we have to wait for the new year, if we have to wait for further concessions, so be it,” he told reporters. Varadkar said he wants a pledge that “we won’t go back to the borders of the past” separating the south from the north on the island of Ireland. “We want that written down.”

In Dublin on Friday, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney warned his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, that efforts to solving the border question are at “somewhat of an impasse,” jeopardizing the prospects of a breakthrough in Brexit talks next month.

For some in Britain, the blame lies with Europe’s big two -- France and Germany -- for blocking progress.

Davis hinted at his frustration in his BBC interview, naming a clutch of other countries that “do want to move on” to discuss trade and the transition phase. Germany and France are “the most powerful players” in the EU, he said. “What they, what they believe is very influential, sometimes decisively so.”

Despite the uncompromising stance from both sides in public, Tusk offered a glimmer of hope that the talks are yielding some results. He said there had been “good progress on citizens’ rights” in the negotiations before calling for “much more progress on Ireland and on the financial settlement.”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reinforced the point. “The clock is ticking,” he said before the Gothenburg meeting began. “I hope that we will be able to come to an agreement as far as the divorce is concerned in the December council but work still has to be done.”

— With assistance by Dara Doyle

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