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British PM seeks summit breakthrough with offer on EU citizens

British PM

BRUSSELS: British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged Thursday to treat European nationals living in Britain fairly as she tried to get sceptical EU leaders to revive Brexit negotiations at a summit in Brussels.

Her 27 EU counterparts are set to say there is insufficient progress on divorce issues to move on to a second phase on future relations, and the most they can do is to start internal preparations to discuss trade and a transition deal in December.

But in a move to sway EU leaders on what is a key topic for them, May said in an open letter on her Facebook page to the three million EU citizens living in Britain that they are “within touching distance” of a deal to secure their rights after it leaves the bloc in 2019.

Read More: EU warns ‘miracles’ needed for Brexit progress

“I couldn’t be clearer: EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today will be able to stay,” May wrote, promising a new “streamlined” process for settling in Britain, and vowing to set up a group to consult EU citizens.

In a speech to EU leaders at the summit dinner on Thursday, May will also “encourage them to move the conversation on to consider the future partnership and the implementation period,” a senior British government official said.

The EU agrees that of the three key separation issues at stake, citizens rights is the most advanced, but that talks on the bill Britain must pay to leave are deadlocked and that discussions on Northern Ireland still have far to go.

Toxic fumes

EU President Donald Tusk warned that he did “not expect any kind of breakthrough” at the summit, saying that while there had been “promising progress” London needed to come up with more concrete proposals.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told AFP in an interview he was “worried of course” about the slow pace of Brexit talks, adding: “I don’t believe that this summit will be the solution.”

With the talks already taking place in a difficult atmosphere, the EU changed the meeting venue at the last minute after a chemical leak in its new 321-million-euro Europa summit building sickened several people on Wednesday.

After five rounds of Brexit negotiations produced few results, fears are growing that Britain may fail to strike a withdrawal agreement before its formal departure on March 29, 2019.

Read More: Hillary Clinton says Brexit a ‘disadvantage’ for UK

Britain’s exit bill is the most poisonous issue. In a speech in Florence last month, May promised to maintain Britain’s contributions for two years after Brexit in March 2019 to complete the current EU budget period, totalling around 20 billion euros ($24 billion).

Germany and France insist that there should be no impact on the EU’s budget from Britain’s departure.

But May is under fresh pressure at home, with senior Brexiteers urging her in a letter in the Telegraph newspaper to walk out of the talks if the EU does not agree to move on to trade.

The Times newspaper meanwhile said Britain was balking at a seven billion euro “rip off” created by inflating the cost of pension liabilities.

Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis — who came with May to Brussels on Monday for dinner with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker — urged the EU to “show a little suppleness” and acknowledge there had been progress, in an interview with France’s Le Figaro newspaper.

However, European Parliament chief Antonio Tajani — whose institution will have a final veto on any Brexit deal — told the BBC on Tuesday that “20 billion is peanuts. The problem is 50 or 60 (billion euros), this is the real situation.”

Separately, Britain’s opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn will hold talks with leading European Union negotiators on Thursday in a bid to “break the Brexit logjam”.

Macron trade appeal

The summit takes place over two days, including a special session on Brexit on Friday morning from which May will be excluded.

On Thursday French President Emmanuel Macron will push trade onto the agenda with a call to his sceptical EU counterparts to put the brakes on free trade agreements or risk angering citizens who are increasingly wary of globalisation.

Read More: Prankster hands British PM unemployment notice

The leaders will also deal with foreign affairs including Turkey, the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and US President Donald Trump’s refusal to certify the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The crisis in Catalonia could also force its way into the discussions with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in Brussels shortly after his government said it would push ahead with suspending Catalan autonomy.

On Friday morning Tusk will discuss an ambitious timeline of 13 summits over the next two years to reboot the EU and introduce major reforms of the eurozone.

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