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EU leaders struggle to break through Brexit impasse

Lorne Cook and Vanessa Gera
Associated Press

Brussels — European Union leaders weighed on Friday the meager progress in Brexit negotiations as they searched for new ways to speed up the highly complex talks some 18 months before Britain is due to leave.

British Prime Minister Theresa May urged her 27 EU partners to bring new momentum to the talks, even as an interim goal was missed to widen the talks from the more immediate divorce issues to future EU-U.K. relations and trade arrangements after Britain leaves on March 29, 2019. That could now happen in mid-December, if things start moving.

“I am ambitious and positive for Britain’s future and for these negotiations. But I know we still have some way to go. We must work together to get to an outcome that we can stand behind and that works for all our people,” May told reporters after informal breakfast talks with her EU counterparts.

Despite the sense of urgency from both sides, and calls to accelerate the negotiations, they remain bogged down on preliminary issues. Those include the exact sum of Britain’s divorce bill — which the EU estimates at 60-100 billion euros ($70-120 billion), compared with a possible 20 billion euro offer from London — the rights of citizens affected by Brexit, and the status of the Northern Ireland-Ireland border.

To try to break the deadlock, May’s 27 EU partners agreed Friday to begin discussing among themselves what their joint position should be on future relations and trade so they can be ready if “sufficient progress” is made on the preliminary issues by the time EU leaders hold their next formal summit on Dec. 14-15.

May, who believes that the divorce terms and future relations are closely interlinked and cannot be negotiated separately, acknowledged that much remains to be done on some of the divorce issues before the European Union sees “enough progress” to go to phase two of the talks.

She said both sides were within “touching distance” on citizens’ rights but still had more work to do on settling the border between EU member country Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and agreeing on the Brexit bill.

Several officials also say that changes to the format of the negotiations are being considered. At the moment, Brexit negotiators meet roughly every three weeks for four days, bringing the media spotlight on the process and raising expectations about what can be achieved. The idea would be to do away with rounds and hold talks on a rolling basis.

Reflecting those concerns, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, said that “we all — not only the U.K. but us also, (must) go for real negotiations and not just negotiating in the media by rhetoric.”

She said that May’s address late Thursday appeared to be made up of extracts from a previous speech and said that it is now time to move “from words to real deeds.”

Maltese Prime Minster Joseph Muscat was more upbeat. He praised May’s address as her “best performance yet.”

“It conveyed a warm, candid and sincere view that she wants progress to be made, that she has proved her position,” Muscat said, as May entered EU headquarters behind him early Friday without speaking to reporters.