U.K.'s May Is Set Dinner Deadline for Brexit Progress in 10 Days

Updated on
  • May must make make new offer before her Dec. 4 Juncker meeting
  • She hails ‘positive’ atmosphere in talks on Brexit progress
Duncan Smith Says May on the Right Track With Brexit

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has 10 days to come up with a new offer on the Brexit divorce bill if she wants to break the deadlock in negotiations before the end of the year.

European Council President Donald Tusk gave May until Dec. 4 to make extra efforts to resolve the differences between the two sides -- most notably on the money and the thorny question of the future of the Irish border. On that day, May is planning to dine with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a meeting that now becomes a critical milestone for Brexit. 

Theresa May on Nov. 24.

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

The deadline, disclosed by an EU official speaking anonymously after a private meeting between Tusk and May, sets the stage for a frantic week-and-a-half of talks between British and European negotiators.

Both sides are targeting the Dec. 14-15 European summit as the moment when they want to be able to declare that sufficient progress has been made on the split to allow talks to begin on future trade and the transition business craves.

At a meeting in Brussels on Friday, Tusk told May that unless she makes her offer by Dec. 4 there won’t be enough time for European leaders to agree sufficient progress has been made on the divorce to allow trade talks to be approved at the December summit, the official said.

Speaking after her private talks with Tusk in Brussels, May said she found a “genuine feeling” that both the EU and the U.K. want to break the deadlock in Brexit talks.

Genuine Feeling

“There are still issues across the various matters that we’re negotiating on to be resolved but there’s been a very positive atmosphere in the talks,” May told reporters. “And a genuine feeling that we want to move forward together.”

For his part, Tusk said that it was possible to reach a breakthrough in December, though it would be a “huge challenge.” An EU official who declined to be named said May had agreed to the timetable set out by Tusk.

May was in Brussels for a summit of European leaders on the theme of the EU’s partnership with countries on it’s eastern borders. She used the gathering to make her case to her counterparts -- including Germany’s Angela Merkel -- that it’s time for Brexit talks to advance.

The U.K.’s biggest fear is that the EU will not agree to allow talks to move on to discuss the future trade relationship and the transition period, even if May makes a new offer on paying the bloc’s unmet bills when Britain leaves.

Where’s the Trust

Suspicions remain in London that the EU will simply bank any new promise and then demand more, without agreeing to move talks on to the second phase -- the future. British officials believe that would be fatal to the negotiations process and want concrete assurances that a new offer on the money will be reciprocated, the person said.

When it comes to trust, a history of damaging leaks on dinners highlight the stakes. Back in May, German newspaper Handelsblatt reported Juncker as saying he left a meal with May at 10 Downing Street "10 times more skeptical” about Brexit. The Brits were not impressed, and May accused the EU of “deliberately” meddling ahead of her election.

Negotiations are currently stuck on two issues: how much the U.K. will pay towards the cost of EU loans, and European officials’ pensions, and the future arrangements for the country’s land border with Ireland. May won the backing of her senior ministers to improve her offer on the money earlier this week but the Irish question remains.

According to the EU official, Tusk told May she must deal with the border between the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU, and Northern Ireland, part of the U.K.

The Irish government has escalated its rhetoric on the post-Brexit border with the U.K. in recent weeks, with full support from the EU. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is also under political pressure at home and risks an early election, potentially hardening his stance. Varadkar said on Friday that not everything would be sorted at the summit in December, and signaled there would be another opportunity in February.

Even if the Irish issue can be resolved, Britain still needs the support of the other EU member states at the December summit before trade talks can begin -- most importantly, France and Germany.

May met Germany’s Merkel over a lunch of pumpkin soup and sea bass during the summit and the pair agreed to hold a formal meeting later in the afternoon. Speaking afterwards, May’s spokesman James Slack said the conversation on Brexit was “very constructive.”

The U.K. will leave the EU, even if there is no deal on the future trading terms, in March 2019.

— With assistance by Richard Bravo, and Robert Hutton

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