EU27 prop up embattled Prime Minister
- Credit: PA Wire/PA Images
Theresa May has reassured the EU27 she will continue to drive Brexit forward despite an embarrassing Commons defeat as they gave the green light for phase two.
European leaders have given their approval for Brexit talks to move on to their next phase but European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker warned that the transition to a post-Brexit relationship between the UK and EU, would be 'considerably harder than the first - and the first was very hard'.
May will was not present as the green light for transition talks was finally given at the European Council summit, having left Brussels early after telling fellow leaders over dinner that she wanted to approach the remaining stages of EU withdrawal with ambition, creativity and perseverance.
Leaders of the remaining 27 member states applauded May's brief address, in what Juncker described as a recognition of the 'big effort' she has made to deliver a successful process.
Leaving the dinner after midnight, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Prime Minister had made a good case for them to declare talks on the divorce issues of citizens' rights, the Irish border and the UK's £39 billion exit bill had made 'sufficient progress' to move on to the second phase.
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But she added: 'There remains much work to do and time is pressing.'
With Juncker and chief negotiator Michel Barnier having already declared that last week's divorce deal amounted to 'sufficient progress', and the European Parliament overwhelmingly backing this verdict on Wednesday, the decision on Brexit is little more than a formality expected to be approved in short order by the EU27.
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But the moment will not be an unalloyed triumph for May, with no immediate move expected to trade talks on the kind of accelerated timetable Downing Street would prefer.
The text which was rubber-stamped promises only work towards a 'framework' for a trade deal, with a wait until March before guidelines for the way ahead are produced.
And the document leaves no doubt that a formal free trade agreement cannot be signed until after the UK has left.
First priorities will be to translate last week's agreement into a legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement and to work out the terms for a transition period of around two years.
It was clear that the two sides remain far apart on the question of how much progress can be made on trade by the date of Brexit on March 29 2019, with UK officials continuing to talk about having an agreement ready to sign the day after departure, while Brussels expects much of the detailed work to be done during transition.
Juncker said: 'The process is that we have to formalise the Withdrawal Agreement.
'This will be put before the European Parliament and then we will start negotiations on future relations as soon as possible.
'It is a difficult process.'
The Commission president said he was 'sad' that the UK was leaving the EU, but asked whether he believed it possible they might change their minds and stay, he said: 'That depends on the British Parliament and the British people.
'It is not up to us to decide what the British people want.'
EU leaders said it was time for Britain to offer more clarity on the kind of trade deal it is seeking, with Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat saying: 'I think the first really big step is for the UK to say pretty clearly what it wants, in clear terms.
'I think that if this happens within the next few weeks, we can start in earnest and by March we will have a very clear European position.'
Senior ministers are due to have their first discussion of the 'end state' relationship with the EU in a Cabinet meeting next Tuesday which threatens to expose deep divisions between differing visions of the UK's future.
Meanwhile, May is facing a further challenge to her authority next week when MPs vote on a Government amendment to enshrine the Brexit date of March 29 2019 in law.
Amid predictions of a second defeat, a senior Government source denied that Mrs May was preparing to dump the provision.
The official also said that 'no politician should face intimidation' after rebel ringleader Dominic Grieve reported receiving death threats amid calls from hardline Brexiteers for the deselection of the 11 Tories who joined Wednesday's successful revolt over the right for MPs to have a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal.
Juncker said May's message was received in a 'polite and friendly' fashion by fellow leaders, while Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern described her comments as 'very constructive', adding: 'Everybody appreciated her personal effort and engagement.'
Asked whether EU leaders believed May remained in a strong enough position to deliver on Brexit, Kern replied: 'Absolutely.'
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