BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Here is a timeline of the coming few days that will determine whether Britain avoids further costly delays in giving business assurances of a smooth exit from the European Union and of free trade with its biggest market in the future:
May wants the EU to open the second phase of Brexit negotiations concerning relations after Britain’s withdrawal on March 30, 2019. The EU will only do that if there is “sufficient progress” in agreeing “divorce” terms, notably on three key issues: a financial settlement, guaranteed rights for EU citizens in Britain and a “soft border” with Ireland.
A deal on money is effectively done, EU officials said last week. There are indications of agreement on citizens’ rights. But opposition from British Prime Minister Theresa May’s key allies in Northern Ireland to treating the province differently from the mainland in a bid to maintain an open EU land border with EU-member Ireland scuppered a deal on Monday.
As part of the “choreography” for a political deal, the EU set May an “absolute deadline” of Monday to provide new offers in time for the other EU leaders to approve a move to Phase 2 at a summit of the EU-27 on Dec. 15. That is now pushed back till the end of the week, EU officials say.
May is pushing for a simultaneous, reciprocal guarantee from the EU of a soft transition and future trade deal, which she may use to show Britons what her compromises have secured. The EU wants to have firm British offers which the 27 can discuss before leaders commit. The result is some complex dance steps:
Wednesday, Dec. 6?
May is expected to return to Brussels as soon as Wednesday. If European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and his Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier emerge from the meeting to pronounce that “sufficient progress” has been made, summit chair Donald Tusk will then distribute draft guidelines for the EU negotiating position in trade talks to the other 27 governments.
Monday, Dec. 11
EU-27 sherpas meet to prepare the summit - a key moment for national leaders’ advisers to seek changes to guidelines.
Tuesday, Dec. 12
EU affairs ministers of EU-27 meet to prepare summit.
Thursday, Dec. 14
4 p.m. - May attends routine EU summit in Brussels. Defence, social affairs, foreign affairs and migration are on the agenda.
Friday, Dec. 15
After May has left, EU-27 leaders hold Brexit summit. If they have had enough time, they could acknowledge sufficient progress and endorse the trade negotiating guidelines, including proposed terms for a two-year, status-quo transition period.
January - Outline of EU transition offer, to be included in the 2019 withdrawal treaty may be ready. Under it, Britain is likely to retain most rights except voting in the bloc, and meet all its obligations until the end of 2020.
February - After fine-tuning their negotiating position, EU-27 may be ready to open talks with London on a free trade pact that Brussels likens to one it has with Canada.
The EU estimated at some 60 billion euros ($71 billion) what Britain should pay to cover outstanding obligations on leaving. EU officials say there is now agreement after Britain offered to pay an agreed share of most of the items Brussels wanted, especially for committed spending that will go on after 2020.
Both sides say there is no precise figure as much depends on future developments. British newspaper reports that it would cost up to 55 billion euros sparked only muted criticism from May’s hardline pro-Brexit allies who once rejected big payments.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Saturday that London would be paying the EU 60 billion euros on Brexit.
Barnier is still seeking a commitment that the rights of 3 million EU citizens who stay on in Britain after Brexit will be guaranteed by the European Court of Justice, not just by British judges. May has said the ECJ should play no more role in Britain. But the issue could be vital to ensure ratification of the withdrawal treaty by the European Parliament. EU officials say a compromise may be to let the Luxembourg-based ECJ oversee cases on citizens rights for only a few years after Brexit.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said London agreed on Monday that Northern Ireland, a British province, would remain in “regulatory alignment” with the EU, and hence the Irish Republic, to ensure there was no “hard border” with police and customs checks that could disrupt peace.
However, a hostile reaction from May’s pro-Brexit and pro-London allies in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on whom she depends for her slim parliamentary majority, caused her to hold off agreeing the package deal with Juncker.
The DUP and many in May’s own party fear that means separating the province from the British mainland - or forcing EU rules onto the whole of the UK.
Leaders of mainland regions Scotland, Wales and London leapt on the deal to demand similar freedom to perhaps remain in the EU customs union or single market, giving May a new headache.
Varadkar said he is willing to see changes in the text - but not something that would change its actual meaning.
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Mark Heinrich