The EU has agreed to begin preparations for a future trade deal with the UK – but has yet to confirm when those talks will begin.
In what will be seen as progress for Theresa May, the remaining 27 countries in the bloc this morning gave the “green light” for “internal” preparations around a trade agreement.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, said he did not want the Brexit talks to fail. “I hate the no deal scenario. I am not in favour of no deal. I want to have a fair deal with Britain,” he said.
And Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said any suggestion that the Brexit talks were “deadlocked” was “exaggerated”.
He added there was a sense of “goodwill” from both the EU and UK. “I want to be motived and positive for the next five or six weeks,” he said.
Juncker: I hate the no deal scenario
However, despite the positive noises from the EU summit in Brussels it has not yet been agreed when the talks will move from phase one – focused on citizens’ rights, the Northern Ireland border and the financial settlement – on to discussions about the UK and EU’s future trading relationship.
And French President Emmanuel Macron indicated today the amount of money the UK would pay on its way out the door was still not agreed.
“Those who persuaded the British to vote Brexit never explained to them what the costs would be,” he said. “I can only underline how much more work needs to be done.”
The original timetable for the Brexit negotiations was for the EU to agree to move to trade talks at this week’s Brussels summit, but the two sides are still wrangling over the size of the UK’s ‘divorce bill’.
The announcement will help lay the ground work for the EU to agree to move to trade talks at a summit in December.
After the announcement, May said she was “ambitious and positive” about the UK’s future outside the EU but acknowledged the Brexit talks “still have someway to go”.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, the Prime Minister did not rule out committing to pay a Brexit divorce bill of more than €20bn.
May said the UK would examine the EU’s financial demands “line by line” but said Brussels should not worry it would be left with a black hole in its finances.
“Nobody need be concerned for the current Budget plan, that they would have to either pay in more or receive less,” she said. “We will honour our commitments made during our membership.”
The Prime Minister also said the UK and EU were “within touching distance of a deal” on EU citizens rights.
The progress on phase one of the talks has been slower than planned, with questions over citizens’ rights, the Northern Irish border and the financial settlement still to be resolved.
May published an open letter to the 3.2million EU citizens living in the UK hours before the summit kicked off, confirming they would be allowed to stay regardless of any Brexit deal but not setting out what rights they would have.
She also promised the process for registering to stay in the UK will be ‘streamlined’ – with EU citizens having a direct say over how it will work through a new User Group that will “meet regularly, ensuring the process is transparent and responds properly to users’ needs.”
But the key disagreement remains over the size of the UK’s financial settlement, with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier saying there was “deadlock” over the issues following the last round of negotiations.
The news was welcomed by Anna Soubry - one of the most anti-Brexit MPs in the Conservative party.
However one of the main pro-EU organisations in the UK, Open Britain, dismissed suggestions the summit had been a success.
Labour MP Heidi Alexander, a leading supporter of the group, said “to have not made sufficient progress in negotiations 16 months after the referendum is an unambiguous failure”.
“Like a teenager trying to get away with handing in their homework late, Theresa May is running out of excuses for her lack of progress,” she said.
“This European Council was meant to wrap up issues like Northern Ireland and citizens’ rights and begin serious negotiations on trade – but now it turns out those talks will not begin before December at the earliest.
“It is nauseating to see Ministers who told us that Brexit would be easy now trying to spin this failed summit as a success.”