BRUSSELS – European Union leaders told British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday to match her goodwill pledges to boost Brexit negotiations with concrete proposals if she really wants to start discussing a future trade deal by December.
May used a dinner at a Brussels summit of the 28-nation bloc to push her call for urgency on trade talks and get a deal she can sell at home in the British leader’s latest attempt to reinvigorate the divorce talks.
“We must work together to get to an outcome we can stand behind and defend to our people,” May told the leaders, who left less than fully convinced.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he understood May’s desire to move things along. “I get that. I also want deals I can sell at home.”
“We still have 1½ years but we have to make haste,” he added.
But since a conciliatory speech by May last month, EU officials have become increasingly impatient about a lack of detailed plans from Britain.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said May is making more of an effort with EU partners toward a Brexit deal, but it was “not enough.”
Rutte agreed. “We will need more meat on the bone,” he said.
Rutte was talking about the money that Britain will owe the EU for previous commitments it made once it leaves in March 2019. Estimates vary from 20 billion euros to 60 billion euros ($24 billion to $71 billion) or even more to settle commitments like long-term development projects or EU pensions.
“I’d prefer a sum, so we can negotiate about it. But if this is asking too much, then at least have a proposal of how to get to a sum. But even that she hasn’t been able to produce,” Rutte said.
Still, Rutte said providing a proper method to tally what Britain owes the EU might be good enough to allow leaders to call it “sufficient progress” so that talks could move to a second stage in December.
“It is about trust, whether the negotiator has enough trust. If there are no concrete figures on the table, that there is a method which can lead to a result,” Rutte said.
At EU headquarters in Brussels, May faced 27 EU counterparts united in blocking her goal of quickly wrapping up the first phase of Brexit talks. With less than 18 months to go until Britain leaves the bloc, the negotiations are still stuck on the terms of its departure.
May had hoped that post-divorce issues like trade could be on the table starting next week.
She came with an olive branch in the form of a pledge to protect the EU citizens now in Britain after the nation leaves. The future status of the 3 million EU citizens living in Britain and the 1 million Britons living elsewhere in the bloc has been a main sticking point in negotiations.
But apart from such issues like citizens’ rights and the bill, EU officials say the future status of the border between Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland is a key issue that needs to be cleared up before the negotiations can move on to issues like trade.
“It’s not enough to say that you don’t want certain outcomes, you need to explain them,” said Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland.
The lack of progress in negotiations has emboldened British euroskeptics, who want a clean break with the EU and no divorce deal. Several urged May on Thursday to walk away from divorce talks unless the bloc starts discussing trade.
Some British lawmakers and peers, including former Treasury chief Nigel Lawson and ex-Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, said if there is no breakthrough this week in the Brexit talks, May should declare unilaterally that Britain will leave the bloc without a deal in March 2019 and will revert to World Trade Organization trade rules.
That would mean tariffs on goods going both ways between Britain and the EU – something many British businesses fear it would have a devastating effect.
While the June 2016 referendum in which British voters chose to pull their nation out of the EU has created political chaos in London, the other EU nations have recovered from the initial shock and stood side by side throughout the negotiations.
EU officials say the negotiations need to conclude by November 2018 at the latest to finish the complicated process of approvals by national parliaments by March 29, 2019, when Britain is due to leave.
Associated Press writer Raf Casert reported this story in Brussels and AP writer Jill Lawless reported from London. AP writers Vanessa Gera and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.