European Union diplomats said Friday that they hope to send London a signal of flexibility and forward momentum by having EU leaders formally approve the start of internal preparations for a post-Brexit trade deal with the U.K.
Authorization of preparatory work on a Brexit transition period and a future trade relationship was included in draft conclusions for next week’s European Council summit, which were distributed to diplomats Thursday.
Diplomats met Friday evening in Brussels to discuss the draft, in which the EU27 are called upon to “start internal preparatory discussions” on a future trade relationship and potential transition arrangements. That’s despite a clear lack of “sufficient progress” on the main divorce issues in the first phase of negotiations. The Council has said such progress is required before they can move on to the second phase of talks.
The “EU moves slowly and we cannot afford to lose any time now,” said a diplomat from the Baltics who didn’t want to be named. “Also, it’s important to send a signal that we are moving forward.”
A diplomat from Central Europe said: “Member states are looking for a way to indicate to the U.K. that we are flexible on the transition without actually changing the mandate for negotiations.”
An EU official who works on Brexit emphasized that the proposed Council conclusions would not authorize direct discussions with London on either the transition or future relationship.
“We are not talking about negotiating the future of the relationship with London,” the official said, “but only to get ready since Brexit is a very complicated issue and time to sort it out is very short.”
That softer line is backed by several countries, including Italy, Lithuania and the Netherlands. By contrast, the bloc’s largest and wealthiest powers, France and Germany, are playing hardball, according to two diplomats involved in the discussions. The Council conclusions require the unanimous approval of the EU27 and any one country can block the conciliatory language. Leaders could also revise the language at any point before approving it.
“At some stage we have to start talking amongst ourselves. The question is whether that is now or later,” another diplomat said.
Yet another diplomat said the debate on the language was similar to the discussions that typically take place about Council conclusions.
“Like in all things, there is a debate, that’s it,” the diplomat said.
At next week’s summit, British Prime Minister Theresa May will call on her fellow EU leaders to open talks on a Brexit transition deal, according to the FT.
It says May is planning an” intense round of telephone diplomacy” ahead of next week’s summit.