Theresa May has been applauded by European leaders after reassuring them she wants a “smooth” Brexit with a transition period that will reassure worried businesses and residents.
At a dinner in Brussels during the EU summit, the Prime Minister was clapped as she told the 27 other countries in the bloc she wanted to kick-start discussions on to the next phase of what happens once the UK quits the EU in 2019.
Acutely aware that May is under pressure back home, amid Cabinet splits and a stinging Commons defeat that gave Parliament a vote on her final plans, her fellow leaders made an audible show of support for her personal pledge to see the negotiations through.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is understood to have led the applause, a symbolic show of support for her embattled counterpart.
The EU is expected to sign-off on phase one of the talks during a meeting on Friday morning, after the UK and Brussels reached draft agreements on citizens’ rights, a financial settlement and the Northern Irish/Irish border last week.
Yet while May is keen to move on to trade talks, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told Sky News meaningful discussions on the future relationship might not begin for another three months.
At a banquet in the Belgian capital on Thursday evening, the Prime Minister told leaders she would make “no secret of wanting to move on to the next phase and approaching it with imagination and creativity.”
She added: “I believe this is in the best interests of the UK and the European Union. A particular priority should be agreement on the implementation period so that we can bring greater certainty to businesses in the UK and across the 27.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said: “She is our colleague, Britain is a member state and so we are … polite and friendly people”.
And Merkel said May “has made good offers,” to ensure EU leaders give the green light for the next stage of talks, though she noted “there are of course many tasks that still need to be solved and time is pressing.”
After the four-hour dinner finished, May said: “We’ve had very good discussions. I’m looking forward to the discussions coming out of tomorrow on the future trade relationship and security relationship.”
Ahead of the summit, European Council President Donald Tusk wrote to leaders describing the end of the phase one talks as “moderate progress”.
He added: “We only have ten months left to determine the transition period and our future relations with the UK.
“This will be a furious race against time, where again our unity will be key.”
May picked up on that theme as she told EU leaders that while the last few months show how difficult these future negotiations will be, the UK and the EU have demonstrated what can be achieved with commitment and perseverance on both sides.
Yet despite the emphasis on time pressures by both May and Tusk, Ireland’s leader said ahead of the summit: “There’s no exact timetable at the moment.
“But the indicative timetable is that we will spend the next three months or so working on the withdrawal agreement, putting into a legal, international agreement what was agreed last week, talking a bit about the two-year transition phase.
“And once we have that done, we can then talk about the new trading relationship.”
The Prime Minister announced she wanted an “implementation period” for any deal during her Brexit speech in Florence in September.
Her plans were endorsed by business groups such as the CBI, who believe such an arrangement would help people plan for the final trading state between the UK and the EU.