EU holds ground after British PM's May trip to Brussels

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves the European Commission headquarters after a meeting with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels, Belgium October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Thomson Reuters

By Gabriela Baczynska

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - European Union ministers told Britain it must offer more concessions on leaving the bloc before the other 27 states will begin trade talks, signaling that Prime Minister Theresa May's trip to Brussels had failed to bring a breakthrough.

Hours after May dined with senior EU officials in Brussels in the hope of pushing the EU to open talks on their post-Brexit ties, even the Netherlands -- which would be badly hit should Britain crash out of the EU with no deal to avoid trade disruptions -- said more was needed on the divorce terms first.

"We, the 27 together, find it extremely important that substantial progress is made on all three areas," Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said.

He reiterated the EU's demand that talks with London must first settle issues around Britain's exit bill, safeguarding expatriate rights, and the future Irish border before the bloc moves to talks on ties after Brexit.

He highlighted that the EU 27 would offer May an olive branch at their summit on Friday by saying they would start preparing among themselves for talks on post-Brexit transition in order to be able to engage with May swiftly after London delivers.

"I hope that in the UK the reality comes in that this is a possibility to come to the next stage in December," Koenders told reporters in Luxembourg where ministers were preparing for the summit this Thursday and Friday.

After the Brussels dinner on Monday evening, May and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said in a joint statement that the pace of negotiations over Britain's departure from the European Union should be stepped up.

But big rifts remain between Britain and the EU 27 more than a year after Britons voted to leave the bloc, and after five rounds of negotiations between London and Brussels ended up with what the EU chief Brexit negotiator called a deadlock.

Some EU ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday said it was hard to negotiate with London as May was constantly challenged by Brexit hardliners in her own cabinet.

"Sometimes it's very difficult to see and understand what Britain really wants from these negotiations," said Finland's deputy minister, Samuli Virtanen. "It seems that at the moment EU 27 is more unanimous than UK 1."

When asked how the Brexit talks were going, Norway's Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen seemed to share the confusion: "That's a good question. We are still waiting for more precise definitions from the Brits."

Belgium's Didier Reynders and Ireland's Simon Coveney also made clear more was needed on the divorce issues, and that the EU 27 could only go for trade talks with Britain in December.


At their talks without May on Friday, EU leaders are due to recognize some convergence between the two sides so far, but to deny May agreeing to open trade talks now.

That suggests her 11th-hour talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as the Brussels dinner have not given the EU enough assurances.

London has suggested May was not bringing any new offer on the Brexit bill.

"It's all about the money and if she ups the bid now, that is a really hard sell politically," a senior source in May's governing Conservative Party told Reuters.

While France and Germany have pushed to tighten the Brexit statement being prepared for the EU 27 leaders on Friday, other diplomats said said they expect cosmetic changes.

Ireland's central bank said separately on Tuesday that companies need to prepare for a "no deal" Brexit and many businesses have said they may have to make contingency plans if there is no more clarity on what comes after Brexit by the end of the year.

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper in London; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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