Prime Minister Theresa May said on Thursday it was right for EU leaders to discuss Brexit without her over dinner, suggesting they needed time to sort out their position and prepare for Britain‘s divorce negotiations.
At the start of a summit which EU leaders will follow by sharing a dinner without the British prime minister, May sought to reinforce her message that, while still a member, Britain will play a full part in discussions on European Union issues.
She held meetings with the Latvian and Lithuanian leaders and with European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who warned the summit that lawmakers could block a Brexit deal if leaders endorse a plan over dinner to exclude them from negotiations.
The emergence of the EU’s strategy, and the arguments over it, offered May a chance to deflect attention from wrangling in her own government about what kind of Brexit deal to ask for.
The prime minister said she welcomed the 27 meeting without her: “It’s right that the other leaders prepare for those negotiations as we have been preparing,” she said, reaffirming her plan to launch divorce proceedings by the end of March.
In Brussels, the delay in starting the process after the referendum in June is seen as reflecting a lack of preparation and understanding of the issues in Britain, as well arguments within May’s government. EU leaders say they are ready to start talks now and have been for a while.
But a British official told reporters the EU should do more: “There is work to do on both sides to prepare for these negotiations.
“We have been doing that obviously for several months and it’s important that the EU … understand and decide how they are going to approach it.”
At a summit more focused on other matters, such as curbing migration from Africa and on building up defences against Russia as Donald Trump prepares to enter the White House, May was keen to set a conciliatory tone and said she wanted a “smooth” exit.
“There will be complexities and difficulties along the way but we need to approach it in the right tone, need to find a viable solution for both sides,” the British official said.
EU governments are pressing May to start talks. But they are also perplexed by what they see as unrealistic ideas in Britain about what can be achieved by a complex and unprecedented exit that even few of its supporters thought likely before the vote.
Some British ministers say they can secure a free trade deal with the EU by the time the two-year withdrawal process is over. Few EU leaders share that view and nor do many British officials. Typically such deals can take up to a decade.
The BBC quoted Britain‘s envoy to Brussels on Thursday as warning the government about such a timeframe.
At the summit, the leaders will end dinner with a statement saying they are ready to begin talks with London and negotiate swiftly, to stick together to preserve the Union and to ensure Britain does not retain EU benefits, for instance on trade access, if it shirks obligations, such as accepting EU migrants.
A draft statement said the Council of EU leaders would give a negotiating mandate to the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, while ensuring national governments were kept in the loop by officials named by summit chairman Donald Tusk to sit in on talks run by the Commission’s negotiator, Michel Barnier.
The European Parliament, which must sign off on any deal, would be kept informed, the draft says — angering lawmakers who want to be involved directly in the talks process.
The Parliament’s outgoing president, Martin Schulz, said this could scupper any deal in the latest fight for influence among EU institutions.