British PM Theresa May to return to Brussels on Saturday in bid to seal Brexit deal

Prime Minister Theresa May heads to Brussels to try to finalize a blueprint for Britain's future ties with the EU.
European Union leaders will meet on Nov 25, 2018, to approve both the outline declaration on future post-Brexit ties and the withdrawal agreement struck last week.
European Union leaders will meet on Nov 25, 2018, to approve both the outline declaration on future post-Brexit ties and the withdrawal agreement struck last week.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (REUTERS) - Prime Minister Theresa May said she would be returning to Brussels on Saturday to hammer out an outline of Britain’s future ties with the European Union after her meeting with the head of the bloc’s executive on Wednesday (Nov 21) failed to bridge the gaps.

Mrs May met European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker for about an hour and a half to try to win commitments aimed at helping her appease rebels at home opposed to her draft Brexit treaty.

“There were some remaining issues which we have discussed,” Mrs May said afterwards.

“I will be returning on Saturday for further meetings, including again with President Juncker to discuss how we can ensure that we can conclude this process.” 

With just over four months before Britain’s departure, Mrs May is trying to finalise an outline of future relations before a summit of EU leaders on Sunday due to endorse the Brexit accord.

Raising the stakes, EU diplomats said they had been told that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was not willing to come on Sunday for any more talks, meaning a text must be ready beforehand.

Spain’s prime minister, meanwhile, insisted he would vote against the draft deal unless he wins assurances over the disputed peninsula of Gibraltar.

Mrs May said negotiators from both sides would continue working on the text. 

“I believe we have been able to give sufficient direction for them to be able to resolve those remaining issues,” she said.

A spokesman for the European Commission said “very good progress” was made at Mrs May’s meeting with Mr Juncker: “Work is continuing.” 

Diplomats in Brussels said EU states’ concerns over fishing rights and future trade ties had largely been addressed in the political declaration on the EU-UK future ties that would form a package with the legally binding divorce deal, meaning Spain’s concerns was the final issue to be settled.

“The only thing really outstanding is Gibraltar,” said one EU diplomat.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez demanded assurances that the future of the disputed British territory of Gibraltar would be settled through direct talks with Madrid.

“If this is not solved by Sunday, Spain, a pro-European government, will unfortunately have to vote ‘No’,” he said at an evening news conference in Valladolid with his Portuguese counterpart.

Many in Brussels thought Mr Sanchez was trying to score points with voters at home before a Dec 2 local election in the southern Andalusia region. They said the issue could be solved by the leaders and warned Madrid not to put the whole Brexit agreement at risk.

As an olive branch to Brexit campaigners in Britain, Mrs May was seeking to include their proposed technological solutions to keep the border open on the island of Ireland. The EU has previously dismissed these ideas as unrealistic at this stage.

NORTHERN IRELAND

The British and European parliaments must ratify the tentative deal to end more than 40 years of partnership before Brexit day on March 29, 2019, or Britain would be set to crash out of the EU with no treaty.

 
 
 

The publication last week of a draft exit treaty sparked the biggest crisis of Mrs May’s premiership, with two Cabinet ministers quitting and dozens of Conservative members of parliament calling on her to step down. They accuse Mrs May of making too many concessions to the EU, while others oppose Brexit altogether.

Mrs May hopes the blueprint on future relations – a political document of about 20 pages meant to be agreed side-by-side with the legally binding 600-page exit treaty – will help win back enough support at home for her approach to pass in parliament.

The Northern Ireland party that props up Mrs May’s government said it does not plan to withdraw its support yet despite opposition to her withdrawal deal.

“The confidence and supply agreement... is very much still in existence,” Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster told the BBC broadcaster.

Asked when the party might consider pulling the plug on support for Mrs May, Ms Foster said: “We’re not there yet.” 

Despite the political turmoil around her, Mrs May has shown no sign in public of any doubt that she can bring home a deal.

The draft treaty envisages Britain staying in a customs union with the bloc, which many Brexit supporters see as a compromise too far.

The EU is trying to discourage Britain from any renegotiation of the draft treaty, while also seeking to assuage concerns expressed by some of the remaining 27 member states. While unanimity among the 27 is not legally required to endorse the deal now, the bloc seeks a unified stance.

DEMANDS 

Both sides have also been advancing contingency plans for the worst case scenario – a no-deal Brexit.

Diplomats in Brussels said Britain was also seeking an easy flow of goods after Brexit, a position which was too close to the privileges allowed only for countries that sign up to EU single market rules, including free flow of people and services.

“The UK wants free movement of goods, which they won’t get because that’s back to discussing partial access to the single market, which we don’t do,” another diplomat said.

In addition, France has called for more guarantees on future access to Britain’s fishing waters, which London wants to keep firmly under its control after Brexit.

Most in the EU are determined to get the deal over the line, with a third EU diplomat saying: “There is plenty of negotiating time left to achieve that.”