May calls for trade talks as EU seeks compromise

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaking with European Council President Donald Tusk at the Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels, Belgium, yesterday.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaking with European Council President Donald Tusk at the Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels, Belgium, yesterday.PHOTO: REUTERS

British PM hopes to firm up Brexit, including exit bill, in crunch talks with EU President

BRUSSELS • Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday urged the EU to "step forward together" with Britain to unlock negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal as the bloc's leaders hoped she would finally offer a compromise on sticking issues during a crunch meeting with EU President Donald Tusk.

The embattled British premier was set to meet Mr Tusk on the sidelines of a summit with former Soviet states in Brussels in a bid to firm up a Brexit divorce deal ahead of a crucial December gathering.

Impatient EU leaders were increasingly hopeful she would bring a new proposal on the thorny issue of Britain's exit bill, after senior British ministers agreed earlier this week to improve the offer to a reported €40 billion (S$64 billion). The EU has so far said the true figure should be closer to €60 billion.

Arriving in Brussels, Mrs May refused to deny she was ready to bump up the amount Britain would pay when she met Mr Tusk, but insisted that any such move must be tied to a final deal on future relations next year.

"These negotiations are continuing, but what I'm clear about is that we must step forward together. This is for both the UK and the European Union to move to the next stage," she told reporters.

At a meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden, a week ago, Mr Tusk gave Mrs May until the start of next month to make "much more progress" in order to unlock trade negotiations at the EU summit on Dec 14-15.

The EU insists Britain must tie up divorce terms - the bill, the Irish border and the rights of EU nationals living in Britain - before there can be any talks on future relations.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Thursday said he was more confident than before about a deal, adding that nothing would be decided before he had dinner with Mrs May on Dec 4.

IN TANDEM

These negotiations are continuing, but what I'm clear about is that we must step forward together. This is for both the UK and the European Union to move to the next stage.

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY, on Brexit talks.

"The actual final phase begins on Dec 4. There is some movement, I don't know in which direction, but I hope in the right direction," the former Luxembourg prime minister said as he arrived at the summit yesterday.

EU member states have become increasingly impatient for Britain to comply, and increasingly worried that Mrs May's fragile Conservative government is unable to do so even if it wanted to.

"It's high time the English came with clear proposals," a European diplomatic source said on condition of anonymity. "The more the English let us stew, the more unified we become."

But Ireland remains a major sticking point, with Dublin stepping up threats to veto a deal if its concerns about the border with British-ruled Northern Ireland are not taken into account.

British officials have proposed that rather than using that veto next month, Ireland could hold fire and block the final Brexit deal if it wants, according to three people familiar with the talks.

That fits with the British view that the border will be easier to sort out once the future relationship with Europe is clear, and also complies with the basic rule of the negotiation that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed".

Failure to reach a deal at the December summit would leave little time for trade talks, which the EU wants to wrap up in October to allow time for a deal to be ratified by national parliaments ahead of Brexit Day on March 29, 2019.

Mrs May, meanwhile, has said her presence at the Eastern Partnership Summit with six former Soviet states showed that Britain was "unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe's security" despite Brexit.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2017, with the headline 'May calls for trade talks as EU seeks compromise'. Print Edition | Subscribe