BRUSSELS (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged Thursday that Brexit negotiations need to speed up, as European Union leaders said a deal is at risk if the British government doesn’t overcome its divisions and decide what kind of ties it wants with the bloc once it leaves.
Britain’s looming exit is a side dish at an EU summit in Brussels, where the top priority is stemming a political crisis over migration that is shaking European unity and undermining German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.
May has been given a slot over dinner to update the 27 other EU leaders on U.K. departure plans. The EU nations will assess progress in the bloc’s divorce negotiations on Friday, without May.
The talks have stalled amid divisions within May’s government about how close an economic relationship to seek with the EU after Brexit. The British leader is caught between pro-EU parliamentarians who want to retain close economic ties with Britain’s biggest trading partner, and pro-Brexit lawmakers who want a clean break so Britain can strike new trade deals around the world.
So far May has fudged the issue, saying the U.K. will quit the bloc’s single market and tariff-free customs union but seek trade that is “as free and frictionless as possible.”
Next week May will gather her fractious Cabinet at Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat, to try to draw up a united plan for future trade and security ties with the EU.
Arriving at the Brussels summit, May insisted there had been “very good progress” in negotiations.
But, she added: “I think both sides are keen to continue that work at a faster pace than we have done up till now.”
EU officials have warned that the timetable the two sides have set themselves — to reach a divorce agreement by October so that EU national parliaments can ratify it before Britain officially leaves the bloc in March — is slipping out of reach.
“We did expect that we would make more progress — or any progress, really,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said. “What I will be saying to Prime Minister May is that we all have to intensify our efforts now. All of us want a deal.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was worried by the lack of progress.
“I don’t have to lecture Theresa May, but I would like our British friends to make clear their positions,” he said. “We cannot go on to live with a split Cabinet.”
EU leaders are especially keen to see progress on the issue of the Irish border. Britain has promised to maintain an invisible border, free of customs posts and other infrastructure, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — the U.K.’s only land frontier with an EU member.
EU officials say they await detailed proposals from Britain for how that can be achieved, given May’s insistence that Britain will leave the EU’s customs union.
“I don’t want to talk in apocalyptic terms,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. “What I want to say is the first, second and third priority now is to solve the problem of the Irish border.”
Leaders of the bloc have warned, repeatedly, that Britain can’t cherry-pick benefits of EU membership, such as access to its single market of 500 million consumers, without accepting the responsibilities that come with being in the bloc, including allowing free movement of EU citizens to the U.K.
Varadkar said he looked forward to seeing the plan produced by the British government after next week’s meeting — though, he added, it would have been better to have had that information two years ago, when Britain voted to leave.
“You would have thought that before people voted to leave the European Union they would have had an idea of what that new relationship would look like,” he said.