No trade talks but May wins gesture, warm words at European Union summit

Andrew Cummings
October 20, 2017

To try to break the deadlock, May's 27 European Union partners agreed Friday to begin discussing among themselves what their joint position should be on future relations and trade so they can be ready if "sufficient progress" is made on the preliminary issues by the time European Union leaders hold their next formal summit on December 14-15.

"As far as I am concerned, I don't hear any reason to believe that we are not going to be successful".

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves an EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium, October 20, 2017. "From my side there are no indications at all that we won't succeed". Leaders will on Friday set a target of December for London to improve its divorce settlement offer.

In choreography that contrasted with images of May standing isolated in Brussels at previous summits, Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were filmed by television cameras engaging the British prime minister in an animated conversation at the start of the summit.

Mrs May also said: "On Northern Ireland we have agreed that the Belfast Agreement must be at the heart of our negotiations and that Northern Ireland's unique circumstances demands specific solutions".

"I took stock, listened to what the people in the United Kingdom were saying, and what my friends and partners in Europe were saying, and I made a step forward", she said.

Merkel repeatedly referred to the speech as an "important" signal from May.

May underlined the "difficult political background" she faces if she returns home empty-handed and said she had realised at the end of the summer what difficulties the talks were in.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte however told reporters in Brussels that Ms May had to "come up with more clarity on what she means by "other commitments" in her Florence speech".

Other issues such as forest fires and migration have dominated the first day of European Council discussions, with Britain's departure not even getting a mention in the first press conference between Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk after hours of talks.

May is under pressure from Conservative MPs to walk out of talks.

But despite a more positive tone, a weakened May now faces a delicate political balancing act as she tries to meet European Union demands for more concrete pledges on Britain's divorce bill without stoking a backlash from Brexit campaigners at home, some of whom would prefer she walk away from the talks.

Despite Mr Tusk's announcement, the EU27 are expected to reject formally moving on to negotiations on Britain's future relationship with the bloc.

"There is increasingly a sense that we must work together to get to an outcome we can stand behind and defend to our people", she said, adding that when the 27 remaining member states convene tomorrow to discuss Brexit in private "the clear and urgent imperative must be that the dynamic you create enables us to move forward together".

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