Brussels (AFP) – Britain and the EU kick off a fourth round of Brexit talks Monday, in hopes of a breakthrough after a cautiously well-received speech by British Prime Minister Theresa May.
During an expected four days of talks, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier will look closely for details from UK counterpart David Davis after May signalled concessions on key deadlocked issues.
The talks were delayed by one week in order to await May’s speech which was delivered in Florence on Friday and tipped as a turning point in the stalled negotiations.
In her speech, May promised to meet Britain’s existing EU budget commitments until 2020 and outlined new legal guarantees for the rights of around three million EU nationals living in Britain.
Britain’s divorce bill and the fate of EU citizens are two areas in which Brussels insists there has to be “sufficient progress” in order to start talks on any future relationship, perhaps in October.
The third condition is the fate of Northern Ireland’s border with the EU-member Republic of Ireland where both sides are wary of endangering the Good Friday peace process.
“If those three points are not clarified, then we cannot move forward on the rest,” French President Emmanuel Macron said after May’s address, adding that it would be up to Barnier to judge on the detailed UK proposals.
The talks are intended to avert a messy exit, with British and EU officials set to meet each month leading up to an EU summit review late in October, which will decide the next step.
“At the present moment, no one expects that we’ll be ready (to expand talks) in October,” a senior EU official said on condition of anonymity, though he conceded the situation could develop quickly.
Barnier on Friday applauded May for her “constructive spirit” and looked forward to her speech’s “concrete implications” during the fourth round.
Amid the negotiations, May will also make her case to EU President Donald Tusk over lunch in London on Tuesday and then to the bloc’s other 27 leaders at a dinner in Estonia on Thursday.
The overall situation is made more complicated by sharp divisions within May’s Conservative government after a June election gamble backfired, throwing her leadership into doubt.
May’s cabinet is now divided between a pro-EU faction — led by finance minister Philip Hammond — and foreign minister Boris Johnson who is pushing for a cleaner break, confident that the Britain can prosper on its own.
Johnson, who campaigned for Brexit, stoked tensions last week by spelling out his distinct vision for the divorce that many saw as an attempt to destabilise and possibly replace May.
– ‘Impossible task’ –
Furthermore, UK negotiator Davis on Sunday was forced to dismiss a report that Britain was prepared to pay a £40 billion ($54 billion, 45 billion euros) divorce bill to leave the EU.
May on Friday did not put forward a figure for Britain to meet its financial obligations when it leaves the bloc, currently set for March 29, 2019.
But EU senior officials have said the sum is between 60 to 100 billion euros, a figure that is bitterly refuted in the UK.
“Not to underestimate the weakness of Theresa May’s leadership, but she may simply have an impossible task leading this deeply divided government (and country) out of the EU and into a healthy future,” said Erik Nielsen, chief economist at Unicredit.
The fourth round of talks begins 15 months after Britain’s vote to leave the EU and six months into a two-year Brexit process, amid increasing concern about the UK economy.
Ratings agency Moody’s on Friday cut Britain’s long-term credit rating, citing economic uncertainty and the likelihood of weaker public finances after Brexit.