BRUSSELS: British Prime Minister Theresa May holds a crunch meeting with European Union President Donald Tusk on Friday as hopes mount that she will offer compromises to secure a Brexit deal in December.
The talks, on the sidelines of a summit with ex-Soviet states in Brussels, come a week after Tusk gave May until the start of December to make “much more progress” on divorce terms in order to unlock trade negotiations.
After months of deadlock, European officials say they hope May will finally bring a new proposal on Britain’s exit bill after senior British ministers agreed earlier this week to improve the offer to a reported 40 billion euros.
The EU has demanded “sufficient progress” on the bill as well as the increasingly delicate issue of Northern Ireland and the rights of EU citizens, if it is to move onto the next phase of negotiations at a December 14-15 summit.
The Tusk meeting — for which no timing was immediately available — launches a frantic few days of Brexit diplomacy, during which May will also meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on December 4.
Juncker indicated there was movement when he said on Thursday that “we are out of the woods” on the first phase, although he stressed that “the situation isn’t so that I can now definitively say that we have made enough progress”.
“We have to see in the next few days,” he said.
EU member states have become increasingly impatient for Britain to meet its terms, and increasingly worried that May’s fragile Conservative government is unable to do so even if it wanted to.
Former Polish premier Tusk has warned that without progress by early December “at the latest” it will be too late to prepare guidelines for the summit for the move towards talks on a future trade deal, and on a post-Brexit transition period of around two years.
Tusk was “more optimistic” after meeting May a week ago on the sidelines of an EU summit in the Swedish port city of Gothenburg, but when it came to tabling a new offer “the earlier the better”, an EU source told AFP.
Britain is reportedly set to double its offer to settle its commitments to the EU budget from 20 billion to 40 billion, but the EU has so far said the true figure should be closer to 60 billion.
The British position on the bill was “evolving, they are laying the ground for domestic public opinion”, another EU official added.
“But if they want ‘sufficient progress on December 15 they can’t come with their offer on December 13 or 14. We have sent them a simple message: don’t wait until the last minute!”
One potential sticking point remains the fact that May’s cabinet says that an increased offer can only be part of a final deal on leaving the EU — which is at odds with the Brussels line on tying up divorce terms before discussing future relations.
Ireland is meanwhile pushing to ensure its concerns about the border with British-ruled Northern Ireland are taken into account, adding an unexpected hurdle to a December deal.
“I believe we have a reasonable chance of there being progress in December, but nobody should underestimate in my view the strength of feeling in the Irish government on this border issue,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said.
“We will not be a government that undermines the peace process upon our own island,” he said, referring to the 1998 Good Friday agreement that ended decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.
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.
May meanwhile said her presence at the so-called Eastern Partnership Summit with six former Soviet states showed that Britain was “unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security” despite Brexit.
The British premier also took aim at Moscow, saying Europe must be “open-eyed to the actions of hostile states like Russia which… attempt to tear our collective strength apart.”-AFP