The European Union’s chief negotiator urged Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday to come up with “workable” proposals for Brexit and overcome “huge and serious” differences to prevent Britain from crashing out of the bloc without a deal.
On the second day of a summit more focused on migration than Brexit, leaders of the other 27 EU countries discussed Britain’s departure without May, united in turning up the pressure on her to overcome rifts in the government and move forward.
May has so far been reluctant to spell out detailed Brexit plans because of deep divisions in her ruling Conservative Party over the terms of Britain’s biggest foreign policy shift in almost half a century.
But she has promised to thrash out an agreement with her top team of ministers at a meeting next week and intends to present a policy document, or white paper, setting out the government’s aims for a future partnership after that.
With only nine months to go before Britain leave the EU, it cannot come too soon for chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
“We want a deal and (are) working for a deal. The time is short,” Barnier told reporters.
“Now we are waiting for the UK white paper and I hope it will contain workable and realistic proposals. But let me mention once again that the time is very short.”
The white paper will set out Britain’s vision for its future relationship with the EU, something that has hobbled attempts to settle a divorce agreement especially over pledges on both side to prevent a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The lack of a proposal on how to keep an all but invisible border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland has stalled Brexit talks, increasing frustration among the other leaders.
“On Brexit we have made progress but huge and serious divergences remain in particular on Ireland and Northern Ireland,” Barnier told reporters in Brussels.
The summit’s conclusions also underlined the leaders’ concerns “that no substantial progress has yet been achieved on agreeing a backstop solution for Ireland/Northern Ireland” but they again held out the possibility of flexibility if “the UK positions were to evolve”.
After a marathon dinner to try to hammer out a deal on a crisis over migration, Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, summed up the agreement on Brexit with a tweet: “Almost 9 hours to approve MigrationEU conclusions, not even 1 minute to approve Brexit conclusions. EU can still work together.”
May again said on Friday she was “ready to intensify and accelerate the pace of negotiations”, but only after warning EU leaders to consider Europe’s safety before cutting Britain adrift from its security architecture.
Security is seen by British officials as one of the country’s strongest cards to play in the talks, but another of May’s pledges – to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – has made continued cooperation more difficult.
Asked whether she was bringing up security to try to deflect attention from a dearth of proposals on future trade, she told reporters: “No, the future security partnership we have with the European Union will be very important.”
“We currently enjoy a high level of cooperation with member states of the EU in a number of areas on security that are important for our citizens. This is what is at stake and I want to see a strong and deep security partnership continuing with our European Union partners.”