EU leaders warn broadening of Brexit talks could be in doubt
GOTEBORG, Sweden — European Union leaders warned Britain on Friday that it must do much more to convince them that Brexit talks should be broadened to cover future relations and trade from next month onward.
With British Prime Minister Theresa May mired in political disputes at home, Friday’s EU summit in Sweden again showed that the negotiations on Britain’s divorce from the bloc are moving as slow as ever despite commitments from both sides to speed them up.
And even though May sought to lobby leaders individually Friday there were scant signs of a more flexible EU stance.
May and French President Emmanuel Macron held a private, windswept tete-a-tete away from the other leaders as they strolled to lunch along the water’s edge. Still, it had little impact on the influential French leader, who insisted that nothing would change in the approach of the talks for now.
“For France, we will not change the agreed process, and we won’t open up the negotiations on life after (Brexit) until the conditions set out in the first phase are agreed upon,” he said.
May’s government was urged to clarify how much Britain will pay to settle its financial accounts with the bloc and to ensure that there is no hard border created between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“I made it very clear to Prime Minister May that this progress needs to happen at the beginning of December at the latest. If there is no sufficient progress by then, I will not be in a position to propose new guidelines on transition and the future relationship” at the EU summit in Brussels on Dec. 14-15, said EU Council President Donald Tusk.
Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, but it must complete the complex and unprecedented departure process by next October so that parliaments can ratify any agreement.
May desperately wants to discuss future relations and trade, and EU leaders have suggested they could be ready to expand the talks next month if “sufficient progress” is made on the divorce bill, the status of Irish borders and the rights of citizens hit by Brexit.
“Britain needs to clarify what they mean with the financial responsibility,” the summit host, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, told reporters in the city of Goteborg. “We all hope that we can decide on the next phase but we still have some way to go.”
Britain has suggested that it might be willing to pay 20 billion euros ($23 billion) to fulfil its financial commitments, while EU officials have said the figure would more likely be between 60 billion and 100 billion euros ($71 billion to $118 billion).
When Tusk was told that Britain’s chief negotiator, David Davis, believes Britain is doing most of the compromising, he countered: “I really appreciate Mr. Davis’s English sense of humor.”
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said there is no chance of progress unless he gets clear guarantees that Brexit will not result in any new barriers between his country and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.
“We’ve been given assurances . that there will be no hard border in Ireland, that there won’t be any physical infrastructure, that we won’t go back to the borders of the past,” Varadkar said. “We want that written down in practical terms.”
“It’s 18 months since the (Brexit) referendum. It’s 10 years since people who wanted a referendum started agitating for one. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they’ve thought all this through,” he said of May’s Conservative government.
The British government insists the preliminary issues and future relations are inextricably linked and should be discussed together, and May remained hopeful that she will get the green light from EU leaders at their next summit in Brussels in December.
“Of course we want to move forward together, talking about the trade issues and trade partnership for the future,” she said.
This EU summit in Sweden was ostensibly about employment and social welfare, but May has been using her visit to hold bilateral talks on Brexit with key figures, including Lofven, Varadkar and Tusk.
Brexit negotiations are bogged down over preliminary issues, and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has warned that progress must be made by Nov. 24 to have any hope of broadening the talks this year.
“The clock is ticking,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Friday. “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 has still to be done.”