Trying to unlock Brexit, Britain's May to make offer on EU citizens

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British Prime Minister Theresa May said it would be 'irresponsible' to not prepare for all Brexit scenarios as she took questions in parliament.
British Prime Minister Theresa May will promise on Thursday (Oct 19) to make it as easy as possible for European Union citizens living in Britain to stay after Brexit, trying to unlock stalled talks that have spurred calls for her to walk away. PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (REUTERS) - British Prime Minister Theresa May will promise on Thursday (Oct 19) to make it as easy as possible for European Union citizens living in Britain to stay after Brexit, trying to unlock stalled talks that have spurred calls for her to walk away.

Weakened by losing her Conservative Party's majority in a June election and failing to rally support at an ill-fated party conference, May had initially hoped she would regain some ground by persuading EU leaders at a two-day summit starting on Thursday to let Brexit talks move beyond matters of the divorce.

But EU leaders have ruled that out, saying London must agree to pay more as part of an exit settlement than May has said is acceptable. So she will instead try to change the focus, by offering more concessions for those EU citizens increasingly anxious about their rights in Britain after it leaves the bloc.

This is unlikely to alter the outcome of the Brussels summit. Continental leaders have been assuming for weeks that a deal can be struck on this issue. But it indicates British officials are pursuing a new course - adopting a softer approach to try to win over the bloc's negotiators, if not all its governments.

In a direct appeal to 100,000 EU nationals who have asked to receive updates on citizens' rights, May will say: "We are in touching distance of agreement" of securing the rights of the around 3 million people from other EU countries in Britain.

"EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK have made a huge contribution to our country. And we want them and their families to stay. I couldn't be clearer: EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today will be able to stay," she will write on her Facebook page, according to an advance text.

She was to add that she will set up a group of those affected and digital, technical and legal experts to make sure the process to remain is smooth.

"I know both sides will consider each other's proposals for finalising the agreement with an open mind. And with flexibility and creativity on both sides, I am confident that we can conclude discussions on citizens' rights in the coming weeks." Offering concessions, May will say that EU citizens settling in Britain will no longer need to demonstrate Comprehensive Sickness Insurance, as they currently have to under EU rules.

A senior government official said the aim was to get clear commitments to "swift progress on both sides for an ambitious plan to be set out for what should be achieved in the weeks ahead and particularly a shared urgency in ... reaching an agreement on citizens' rights." EU negotiators have, however, so far been wary of British offers that London refuses to back up by giving people a right to ask the EU court to enforce if British courts do not.

The offer is a change of tack by the British leader, who is under increasing pressure from Conservative Brexit campaigners to pull out of the talks which hit deadlock last week.

To add to her difficulties, the leader of Britain's main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, will also be in Brussels on Thursday to meet EU lawmakers to try to break "the Brexit logjam" created by what he called government "bungling". EU leaders are expected to say at the summit the talks have not yet made "sufficient progress" for them to open the post-Brexit trade negotiations May wants. But they will make a"gesture" and recognise concessions May offered in a speech in Italy last month by telling EU staff to prepare for talks on a transition period needed to ease uncertainty for business.

"I don't expect any kind of breakthrough tomorrow," Donald Tusk, the chairman of EU leaders, said on Wednesday.

"We have to work really hard between October and December to finalise this so-called first phase and to start negotiating on our future relationship with the UK." Some EU officials said Britain could unlock the talks by putting a higher figure for the divorce bill on the desk of chief negotiator Michel Barnier, something May says she cannot do until she has an understanding of the shape of future ties.

With only 17 months until Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019, May is under pressure to move the talks forward or risk leaving the bloc without a deal and plunging into uncertain trading conditions that could hurt the world's seventh-largest economy.

But on the so-called divorce bill she has little room for manoeuvre. If May offers more than the around 20 billion euros (S$32 billion) she outlined in the Florence speech, she risks angering some in her party, which, according to two sources, is getting ready to line up a successor.

A senior British government official said she would not change position on the financial settlement and instead would focus on the deal on EU citizen rights - one of three issues that the EU says must be resolved before the talks can move on.

The official said the change of focus was not to try to save face at the summit, at which she will present her case for Brexit over a dinner on Thursday. She will then be excluded from the other 27 EU members' discussions on Friday about Britain's planned departure from the wealthy bloc.

May was left empty-handed this week after telephoning German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, leaders of the Union's leading powers who have taken a hard line on the talks.

Even a dinner in Brussels on Monday with EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and Barnier won only a joint pledge to"accelerate" the process.

"We are also starting to think about what could it be in such a situation (of no-deal) but we still hope that won't happen," a senior EU diplomat said.

"We are still optimistic that it won't happen, can't imagine the Brits would be so reckless about it. It's just that the timetable may get a bit more stressful."

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