Prime Minister Theresa May has made clear that she is not expecting a Brexit breakthrough at this week’s summit of EU leaders, describing it as an opportunity to “take stock” of progress so far.
Mrs May 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.
The two-day European Council summit in Brussels comes as 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”.
Britain’s hopes of getting the green light for trade talks at the European Council meeting in Brussels were dashed last week, when EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that not enough progress had been made on divorce issues like citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the UK’s financial settlement.
But Mrs May is hoping to persuade the leaders of the 27 remaining EU states to at least agree to begin discussions among themselves on the transition to Brexit and the future trade relationship, preparing the ground to move on to the second phase of talks after their next gathering in December.
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.”
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.
And 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.
The EU27 are expected to agree on Friday to begin internal scoping discussions on the future trade relationship with the UK, as well as Britain’s call for an “implementation period” of around two years after the official date of Brexit in March 2019 to avoid a cliff-edge withdrawal.
But European Council president Donald Tusk 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).
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 Michel 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”.