Theresa May told European Union leaders over a summit dinner in Brussels that both sides in the Brexit talks needed to strike a deal they could “defend to our people.”
The British prime minister arrived in Brussels Thursday with no new offer for the Brexit talks, but she insisted in an entreaty to EU leaders that her Florence speech and personal commitment to its proposals had “taken us forward,” according to a senior U.K. official who briefed journalists on her remarks.
As leaders tucked into a dinner of butternut gnocci with smoked haddock followed by pheasant supreme with pan-fried cep mushrooms, May acknowledged that Brexit negotiations had been in “difficulty” at the end of the summer. But she told the 27 other leaders: “I took stock, listened to what people in the U.K. were saying and what my friends and partners in Europe were saying, and I made a step forward.”
Her plea to fellow leaders follows several days of frenetic diplomacy by May and her ministers, including phone calls with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel plus a dinner in Brussels on Monday with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
The diplomatic push has been greeted with a mixture of sympathy and bemusement, but apparently little willingness to make extra concessions to ease May’s political problems. The attitude in most national capitals has been that Britain opted to leave, so it is up to the U.K. to come up with solutions to the problems created by Brexit.
As May set off for Brussels, a group of hardline Brexiteers, mainly from her own party, urged her to walk away from talks if the EU27 continued to refuse to move on to discussing future trade arrangements. Later, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told reporters that if Brexit negotiators failed to achieve a deal, Britain will “do very well.”
“We have to prepare for every eventuality … we will come through it very well whatever happens,” he said.
Asked about the Brexiteer letter, the prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “The Florence speech intended to create momentum and we have achieved that. In all our talks with EU leaders, they have been responsive and indicated they want progress to continue. The prime minister is focused on urging leaders to put their attention on the shared opportunities and the challenges ahead.”
In Brussels, leaders insisted May, who made an implied €20 billion financial commitment in her Florence speech by promising to keep the existing 7-year EU budget whole through to 2020, was not going far enough to move negotiations on to a future trade deal.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters on his way into the Council meeting that he believed May had to “come up with more clarity” following her Florence speech.
“I phoned her last week and tried to encourage her to do that but so far she hasn’t,” Rutte said, adding: “The exit bill will be the main point.”
But the U.K. prime minister insisted over dinner that her speech in Florence had contained two important elements that were designed to add a new “dynamic impetus” into the formal process in Brussels — a firm commitment on the financial settlement and a proposed “implementation period” in the interests of both the U.K. and the European Union.
“Both sides were agreed that subsequent rounds have been conducted in a new spirit and there is increasingly a sense that we must work together to get to an outcome we can stand behind and defend to our people,” she told the other leaders.