Britain’s impending split threatened to overshadow an EU summit in the Swedish port city of Gothenburg that was meant to focus on improving social standards and seeing off the threat of populism in the post-Brexit future.
May expressed hopes the bloc would respond “positively” after she met several leaders on the sidelines, but they all warned that time was running out to settle the key divorce issues, and unlock negotiations next month on a trade deal and transition period.
“The clock is ticking. I hope that we will be able to come to an agreement as far as the divorce is concerned at the December council (summit) but work has still to be done,” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned last week that Britain had just two weeks to meet the bloc’s conditions on its divorce bill, citizens’ rights and the Irish border if it wanted an agreement.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar struck a firm line, saying Dublin’s demands that Brexit should create no “hard border” between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland must be “written down” in the conclusions of the first phase.
“If we have to wait until the new year, or if we have to wait for further concessions, so be it,” Varadkar told reporters before having breakfast with May.
“It’s 18 months since the referendum, it’s 10 years since people who wanted a referendum started agitating for one, sometimes it doesn’t seem like they’ve thought all this through,” he added.
May said Britain would “honor our commitments” on the exit bill, as she promised in a speech in Florence in September, and urged the bloc to start trade talks now.
“I look forward to the European Union responding positively to that so we can move forward together and ensure that we can get the best possible arrangements for the future,” May said.
British media reports have suggested May could be ready to double the UK’s €20 billion offer on the exit bill in a bid to clear what has been the most difficult hurdles in talks so far. The EU says the bill is around €60 billion.
She will also meet European Council President Donald Tusk, with Tusk set to warn her that opening the next phase “is not a given, will require more work and that time is short,” an EU source told AFP.
Failure to reach a deal in December would push back a decision until February or March, leaving little time for trade talks before Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019.
May’s government is still pressing for a quick transition to future EU-British ties while shrugging off EU pressure on the divorce terms.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in Dublin on Friday that doing so would help solve the Irish issue, while Barnier’s British negotiating counterpart David Davis called on the EU to compromise across the board.
“Surprise, surprise: nothing comes for nothing in this world,” Davis told the BBC in Gothenburg, adding that various EU countries “can see there are big, big benefits in the future deal that we’re talking about.”
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, who also held talks with May, said it was “very dificult to say” whether a deal was possible in December and added that London “needs to clarify what they mean about the financial responsibility.”
But Lofven said he also wanted to keep the focus on the so-called “social summit” in Sweden, which is the first step in a two-year reform drive to show the bloc can survive after Brexit and other setbacks, by tackling the economic inequalities fueling populism.
EU leaders are looking to reboot the union based on plans by France’s new president Emmanuel Macron and by Juncker.
“This is absolutely crucial for EU’s legitimacy,” Lofven told reporters at the meeting, the bloc’s first social summit since one in 1997 in Luxembourg.
Most of the EU’s 28 national leaders attending with the exception of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the bloc’s economic and political lodestar, who is in Berlin for talks on a new governing coalition.
Berlin said she fully supports the meeting’s goals, which will be enshrined in a European Pillar of Social Rights signed by key figures on Friday.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite shrugged off suggestions the Gothenburg summit would be hijacked by the Brexit issue, quipping “No, at least not this one.”