British Prime Minister Theresa May put on a brave face at the end of an EU summit on Friday (23 June), insisting she had made a “fair and serious” offer to her European partners and that all aspects of Brexit were still up for discussion. But the writing on the wall was unmistakable.
EU leaders made it clear that the new 27-member Europe can – and will – move forward without London. Britain voted to leave the bloc exactly a year ago today. Talks on the conditions of the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc started last week and should be completed by April 2019.
May’s efforts to launch a serious debate about Brexit, during the 22-23 June summit in Brussels, were nipped in the bud before she even arrived. EU leaders accorded her a mere 10 minutes at the end of an official dinner to present her proposal for protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK and of British citizens in Europe.
And their response, once May explained her proposal, ranged from “a good start” by Germany’s Angela Merkel to “not sufficient” and “vague”, lacking clarity and detail.
But May insisted on Friday she had had good discussions, particularly with the prime minister of Poland, whose citizens are the biggest expat group in the UK.
“The other leaders have also reacted positively to me,” May said but went on to indicate that there might be some room for compromise on the contentious issue of which courts will be enforcing the rights of EU citizens abroad after Brexit.
The EU has said it wants its citizens to have recourse to the European Court of Justice.
On Friday, May repeated the UK’s stance that “(the rights) will be enshrined in the UK law and enforced through some highly respected UK courts.”
But she also acknowledged that “the question of how to enforce the rights is, of course, one to be taken into the negotiations” and that “I look forward to reaching an agreement at the earliest possible date”.
Talks started in Brussels on June 12, with the two sides agreeing to tackle the issues of London’s outstanding financial obligations, the rights of the EU and UK citizens living abroad, and the border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland.
At the time, May was still struggling to arrange a ruling coalition and secure control of parliament, after a poor showing by her Conservative party in the general election denied her an outright majority.
As there has been little progress in the government-forming talks since then, reporters on Friday questioned whether May had a strong enough mandate to hold any talks on key issues.
She appeared defiant and replied that “more than 80% of the voters voted for the parties committed to respecting the referendum result… committed to the UK leaving the EU”.
“I have always been very clear: the UK will be leaving the EU but it won’t be leaving Europe. We want a special partnership with the EU, we want to play a role in ensuring Europe’s security and defence,” she said.
But many attending the summit felt that the EU had indeed moved on. While Merkel and new French President Emmanuel Macron were giving a post-summit news conference in a packed room, May spoke next door in front of just a few dozen reporters, most of them from the UK.