EU warns 'miracles' needed for Brexit progress

Talks on Europe's digital future hijacked by Brexit concerns, Macron's plans to reboot EU

TALLINN (Estonia) • The EU has warned that Britain needs a miracle to unlock the next phase of Brexit talks by next month, as leaders discussed the post-Brexit reform plans of French President Emmanuel Macron.

The talks in Tallinn yesterday were supposed to be devoted to the digital future of Europe, but Britain's departure from the bloc and Mr Macron's plans to reboot the union hijacked the agenda. He has given new impetus to a year of European soul-searching after the Brexit vote, even as the bloc tries to sort out the nitty-gritty before Britain leaves in March 2019.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned that there was next to no chance that the divorce talks would get far enough by the end of next month to move on to discussions on a future trade deal, a crucial demand of Britain.

"By the end of October we will not have sufficient progress," he said as he arrived for the second day of the summit. "I'm saying there will be no sufficient progress from now until October unless miracles happen."

EU leaders are set to decide at a summit on Oct 19 and 20 on whether there has been "sufficient progress" on three key issues: Britain's exit bill, the fate of Northern Ireland, and the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, however, insisted there had been "very good progress" on the rights of EU expatriates, following a major Brexit speech she gave in Florence, Italy, last week.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart, Mr David Davis, wrapped up a fourth round of Brexit negotiations in Brussels on Thursday saying there had been progress. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said there was a "better vibe and a better mood" coming from the talks, but added it was "still very evident there's more work to be done".

Estonia, which currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, bills itself as among the avant-garde of the digital revolution and called the summit to help promote tech in Europe.

At the digital talks, Mr Macron was expected to push sceptical counterparts to overhaul tax rules so that more of the profits from Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook and Google fall into Europe's public coffers. In his closely watched speech on Tuesday, Mr Macron thundered against high tech firms that had become the "freeloaders of the modern world".

The proposal was part of a wider vision that the 39-year-old leader unveiled in a landmark speech in Paris, aimed at reviving a European project hurt by Brexit, populism and the refugee crisis. "There's a collective wake-up call that a leap forward is indispensable in Europe," Mr Macron said.

At dinner in the Estonian capital on Thursday, EU national leaders held a debate about Mr Macron's plans. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU's most powerful leader, indicated her support for his new vision. "There is a wide agreement between France and Germany when it comes to the proposals, although we must work on the details," she said .

Based on the discussion, European Council President Donald Tusk, who coordinates EU summit meetings, said he will in two weeks unveil a programme for the bloc's leaders for this and next year.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2017, with the headline 'EU warns 'miracles' needed for Brexit progress'. Print Edition | Subscribe