German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave Theresa May a Brexit boost as EU leaders gathered for a summit in Brussels, saying there were “encouraging” signs that talks on the future UK/EU trade relationship could begin as early as December.
Britain had already given up hope of receiving a green light for trade talks at the two-day European Council, after chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said last week that insufficient progress had been made in divorce talks to move on to the second phase, dealing with trade.
The Prime Minister made clear she was no longer expecting a breakthrough this week, characterising the summit as an opportunity to “take stock” of progress so far.
But she said she would be setting out “ambitious plans” for further negotiations in the weeks ahead, and said she wanted to inject a new “urgency” into discussions on the post-Brexit rights of EU citizens living in the UK and Britons on the continent.
Mrs Merkel held out the prospect the leaders of the remaining 27 EU states may be ready to kick off trade talks at their next scheduled summit, telling reporters that enough progress had been made to encourage her to think it will be possible to “take the work forward and then reach the start of the second phase in December”.
European Council president Donald Tusk has indicated the EU27 may agree on Friday to begin internal scoping discussions on their position on a possible trade deal, which would allow formal negotiations with the UK to begin around Christmas if further progress is made on the divorce issues of citizens’ rights, the Irish border and Britain’s financial settlement.
But he warned on Wednesday that a move to formal trade negotiations in December would require “more concrete proposals from the British side”, in comments reflecting pressure from Brussels for further UK concessions on a so-called “divorce bill” which could reach 60 billion euros (£53 billion).
Mrs May was also expected to urge the other 27 leaders, when she addresses them over dinner on Thursday, to prepare for talks on an “implementation period” of around two years after the official Brexit date in March 2019 to give businesses and governments time to transition to the new relationship.
Arriving in Brussels at the start of the two-day summit, Mrs May said: “This Council is about taking stock. It is also about looking ahead to how we can tackle the challenges that we all share across Europe.
“That means of course continued co-operation, co-operation which must be at the heart of the strong future partnership that we want to build together.
“Of course we will also be looking at the concrete progress that has been made in our exit negotiations and setting out ambitious plans for the weeks ahead.
“I particularly want to see an urgency in reaching an agreement on citizens’ rights.”
Before travelling to the Belgian capital, Mrs May issued a message to the estimated three million EU citizens in the UK, telling them that she wants them to be able to stay after Brexit and that a deal on their rights is “in touching distance”.
In an open letter posted on her Facebook page and mailed to 100,000 EU nationals, Mrs May repeated her message that “EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today will be able to stay” after Brexit.
She set out measures to make it easier for EU expats to take on the new “settled status” which will allow them to remain, including the creation of a new User Group allowing them to have a direct input into the design of a “streamlined” digital registration process.
Arriving at the Brussels summit, French President Emmanuel Macron said there had been attempts to create divisions within the EU, but that the 27 would show “very strong unity in the discussions on Brexit”, with shared goals and support for Mr Barnier as the EU’s sole chief negotiator.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was also in Brussels to meet Mr Barnier and three EU national leaders.
He accused Mrs May of presiding over “chaos” in the Brexit talks and said Labour “stands ready to take up responsibility for negotiations”.
Before formal talks got under way in Brussels, Mrs May was seen deep in conversation with Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron.
Other EU leaders indicated that they were hopeful for a breakthrough at the December 14-15 summit.
Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila said: “I hope we can decide the next phase in December’s meeting, but today we are not in that position.”
Mr Sipila said he was “not yet” preparing for the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal.
Hardline Brexiteers tried to step up pressure on Mrs May for a no-deal Brexit, with an open letter signed by four Tory former cabinet ministers including ex-chancellor Lord Lawson urging her to walk away from talks.
Former cabinet minister Owen Paterson said Britain should not be “terrified” of leaving with no deal and trading on World Trade Organisation terms.
But Brexit Secretary David Davis distanced himself from the idea, describing it as no more than “a very distant possibility”.
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar distanced himself from remarks by Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan who said the negotiations on the UK’s split from Europe are on a cliff edge to a hard Brexit.
“I think we have a way to go yet,” he said.
“Brexit does not happen until April 2019. We are quite far back from the cliff edge at this stage.
“But it’s incumbent on the EU prime ministers and presidents to ensure that we don’t sleepwalk towards that cliff and that substantially more progress is made in the next couple of months.
“We are well away from the cliff.”
Mr Varadkar also said progress has been made on the Irish border, “just not enough”.
The Taoiseach said Mr Barnier’s assessment of the talks should focus minds in the run up to December and amid mounting pressure for movement on the trade issue.
Mr Varadkar also called for a lot more detail from the UK on how the Irish border will remain open after April 2019.
“Language isn’t enough,” he said.
“If the UK is leaving the European Union it is on them to put forward detailed proposals to ensure that things remain much the same. That is at the core of the conflict with the position that the UK is taking.”
Mr Varadkar was also optimistic of enough common ground being reached in the Brexit talks by December.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said Mrs May failed to provide the clarity European leaders want on Britain’s financial settlement in her speech in Florence last month, when she said the UK would honour commitments made as an EU member.
He said: “I think that Theresa May has to come up with more clarity on what she meant with ‘honour commitments’ in her Florence speech.
“I phoned her last week to encourage her to do that and so far she hasn’t.”
He acknowledged that money was the main stumbling block, saying: “On citizens’ rights and border controls, these are still difficult issues but particularly the question of the exit bill will be the main one.”
European Parliament president Antonio Tajani addressed the EU leaders as the summit began.
He later told reporters that he had said the Parliament “appreciated” Mrs May’s Florence speech but added “we are still awaiting implementation of what was said in that speech”.
Mr Tajani said: “Progress so far has not been satisfactory. We heard the tone of the speech by Mrs May, but I am still waiting to see the tone of that speech – the more flexible approach – transformed into practical deeds.”
He said that, even after Mrs May’s letter to expats, it was “not yet clear exactly what the UK wants to do” with respect to citizens’ rights.
He warned: “The top priority for the European Parliament remains the protection of those people, including the protection of British nationals living in Europe. If we can’t get agreement on that point, the European Parliament will vote against any possible agreement.”
Mr Rutte gave more details of his phonecall with Ms May asking her to explain what she meant in her speech in Florence about the Brexit divorce bill.
“I said, Theresa, please, make clear what you mean with that, at least when and how you will propose to tackle this debate,” the Dutch PM told the BBC.
“And, if you do that, we might have some more forward-leaning language.”
Mr Rutte said answering the plea would encourage more support among the EU-27 for the Brexit talks to move on to trade.
He said they were already leaning that way.
“I mean that already is helpful language, I think, for the UK.
“But, she might get more, if, we would get more on the exit bill,” Mr Rutte said.