Talk of Brexit progress at EU summit following May speech

Leo Varadkar suggests UK stance is gradually moving closer to EU’s position

British prime minister Theresa May takes a seat as she arrives for a bilateral meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk during the EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AFP/Getty Images

British prime minister Theresa May takes a seat as she arrives for a bilateral meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk during the EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AFP/Getty Images

 

A two-day European Union summit in Brussels ended on an upbeat note Friday, with leaders expressing confidence that their next meeting in December would see Brexit discussions move on to phase-two talks about the future EU-UK relationship.

European Council president Donald Tusk insisted that “reports of deadlock are exaggerated”.

“While progress is not sufficient,” he said. “That does not mean no progress.”

UK prime minister Theresa May’s speech in Florence had provided a new momentum, and “I hope we will be able to move to second phase talks in December”. That would, however, require serious cash on the table, the leaders made clear. Ms May said she was “optimistic” – a deal in December was in the best interests of both the EU and UK.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar expressed “a degree of confidence” about the timeframe, pointing out that they did not have to resolve the three issues at the centre of the “divorce” talks, but “just have to make sufficient progress”. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he was confident the EU would not end up with a “no deal”.

Mr Varadkar was also adamant that there was no need for greater EU flexibility – “they had already shown as much flexibility as they can”.

The UK position he said, was moving closer to the EU position as time went on. He added that the Government would engage in “contingency planning for different outcomes and different scenarios and that is certainly under way” but a “hard Brexit could certainly be avoided”.

New mandate

The summit, as expected, unanimously backed the agreed conclusions on Brexit in a debate that lasted all of two minutes. Crucially, they agreed to start internal discussions on a new negotiating mandate for talks on transition arrangements for the UK and on the future relationship. By December, if “sufficient progress” is made in the divorce talks, the member states will approve the mandate and be ready to start the phase-two talks immediately.

On the financial settlement the text welcomes the UK’s promise that it will honour its commitments as a member, but insists “this has not yet been translated into a firm and concrete commitment”.

Leaders made clear Ms May would have to increase her initial €20 billion Brexit divorce offer, while France’s president Emmanuel Macron suggested the final bill should be more than €40 billion.

The impression has been given by both the UK and the commission that the Irish strand of the talks is producing good results, with “sufficient progress” already reached on protecting the Common Travel Area, and detailed work well under way on mapping and then working out how to safeguard the 140 areas of cross-Border co-operation that are mostly the fruit of the Belfast Agreement.

Adamant

But, despite a repeated strong insistence from the UK that it does not want to see, as Ms May put it this week, “any fixed infrastructure on the Border”, Dublin remains adamant that they must do more.

On Friday, Mr Varadkar, welcomed what he said was stronger language from Ms May on the North. However, he insisted that although it was “very positive”, “we need to see the strengthening of that language in detail”.

The UK must concretise its aspiration by explaining how it will achieve that frictionless Border. It is clear that Irish and EU officials see “sufficient progress” on Ireland as some way off.

Ms May reiterated the UK position on the North at her final press conference. “On Northern Ireland, we have agreed that the Belfast Agreement must be at the heart of our approach and that Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances demand specific solutions. It is vital that joint work on the peace process is not affected in any way; it is too important for that,” she said.

“Both sides agree that there cannot be any physical infrastructure at the Border and that the Common Travel Area must continue. We have both committed to delivering a flexible and imaginative approach on this vital issue.”