EU leaders back May over Brexit talks

Brussels (AFP) –


EU leaders voiced support for embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May at a summit on Thursday but warned there was work to do on the next phase of Brexit talks.

Her 27 colleagues applauded her after she addressed them over dinner, a day after a parliamentary defeat over her Brexit strategy in which members of her own party rebelled.

The rest of the EU leaders are expected to open the next phase of Brexit talks at the summit on Friday, which will focus on a transition period and future trade ties.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the interim deal Britain struck with the EU a week ago on making "sufficient progress" on key divorce issues including the exit bill, the Irish border and expatriates rights.

"Theresa May has made good offers that imply that the 27 will see sufficient progress tomorrow. But there remain many issues to be solved and we don't have much time," Merkel said.

May told reporters as she left that "we've had very good discussions. I'm looking forward to discussions on the future trade relationship and security relationship."

A British official said May was "clear about wanting to move onto trade talks as quickly as possible" when she spoke to the other leaders, telling them she wanted to approach the next phase with "ambition and creativity".

- 'Personal efforts' -

Several leaders gave their backing to May over the question of whether she would be strong enough domestically to push through a Brexit deal after Wednesday's humiliating vote.

"Everybody appreciated her personal efforts and engagement," Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said after the talks. "That is just an internal discussion within Britain (about her future), but not here in the European Union."

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said earlier that May still had "formidable stature" in Brussels, saying that last week's hard-fought agreement on the divorce deal "showed you should not underestimate her".

But while Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite agreed that leaders were "satisfied" talks could move to the second round, she said that it was not really important who was in charge in Britain.

"We need to have an agreement no matter who is negotiating, we need to do the job, so we are happy the first stage is gone," she said.

May said earlier she was "disappointed" at the parliamentary setback, which saw 11 MPs from her Conservative party rebel to demand a final vote over the terms of the withdrawal, but stressed: "We're on course to deliver Brexit."

- Tortuous negotiations -

After months of tortuous negotiations, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker struck a deal with May last week on the outline terms of Britain's withdrawal from the EU in March 2019.

It covers Britain's financial settlement, the future of the Irish border and expatriate rights, while the next stage will cover trade and a transition period to ease the break.

The EU's negotiating guidelines state they will start talks on a post-Brexit transition in January but will not begin trade talks until March, calling for more clarity about Britain's goals.

British officials are hoping for a deal by March on a two-year transition, during which the relationship would largely stay the same, although Britain would have to follow EU laws.

However, the EU has warned May that her hopes of agreeing a bespoke trade deal before Brexit to replace Britain's membership of the EU's single market and customs union is unrealistic.

EU President Donald Tusk warned earlier this week of a "furious race against time" to reach the next stage of negotiations.

Questions still linger over the divorce agreement, after British Brexit minister David Davis appeared to suggest it was not legally enforceable.

There are particular concerns about the guarantee made by London -- at Dublin's request -- that there will be no frontier checks between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland

Davis's comments prompted a warning by the EU that Britain must not backtrack, and Rutte repeated Thursday: "We cannot have a misunderstanding of what was agreed."