BRUSSELS • European Union leaders agreed yesterday to start internal work on the bloc's relationship with Britain after Brexit, giving some progress for embattled Prime Minister Theresa May to take back home.
EU President Donald Tusk said in a tweet that the bloc's other 27 leaders meeting in Brussels had agreed to begin preparations for trade talks even though not enough progress has been made on the terms of Britain's exit from the EU.
"Brexit conclusions adopted. Leaders green-light internal EU27 preparations for 2nd phase," Mr Tusk said on Twitter as EU leaders met without Mrs May to discuss the issue. It took the leaders 90 seconds to approve the conclusions, an EU source told AFP.
The toughest sticking point has been the bill Britain will pay as it leaves the EU club. European capitals are demanding detailed written commitments on finance before progressing to trade talks, fearing that Brexit will blow a hole in the bloc's budget.
In a move that risks being seen as a snub to the EU's gesture, Mrs May insisted once again yesterday that a detailed financial deal could only be reached once Britain's future relationship with the bloc was agreed.
"The full and final settlement will come as part of the final agreement that we're getting in relation to the future partnership. I think that's absolutely right," she said at the end of the Brussels summit.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck an optimistic note following a summit dinner on Thursday night, when Mrs May addressed the leaders. Dr Merkel said that despite delays in the negotiations, she could see "zero indications that we will not succeed" in reaching a final agreement.
Written conclusions approved by the leaders said the EU will delay the decision on opening the next phase of talks until the next summit in December, but they will agree to "start internal preparatory discussions" on trade and a possible transition deal.
A European diplomatic source said: "May asked for a sign, we have given a sign."
The slow progress of the negotiations, particularly on Britain's financial settlement, stoked fears that the country could leave the EU in March 2019 without a deal in place, risking economic and legal chaos.
Dr Merkel, the bloc's most powerful leader, emphasised she did not want this, saying: "I want very clearly a deal and not some unpredictable solution. On this, we are working very intensively."
The EU agrees that of the three key separation issues at stake, citizens' rights is the most advanced, but sticking points remain on the bill and Northern Ireland's border with Ireland.
An EU source said that starting preparations on guidelines for the trade talks would save time if and when the political decision was taken to move forward in December.