BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May said at the start of a European Union summit on Thursday that she would reassure fellow leaders that her government will protect the rights of their citizens living in Britain after its departure from the bloc.
But other leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, made clear that they did not want to get drawn into Brexit discussions and instead preferred to focus on the future of the EU without Britain.
At her first EU summit since the June 8 elections sapped her authority to set the terms of Brexit, May said: “I’m going to be setting out some of the UK’s plans, particularly on how we propose to protect the rights of EU citizens and UK citizens as we leave the European Union.”
She seemed keen to calm the mood with the continentals after weeks of sniping during her election campaign, describing the first formal meeting of Brexit negotiators on Monday as “very constructive” and stressing that London wanted a “special and deep partnership with our friends and allies in Europe”.
Merkel also expressed a desire for constructive talks with Britain, but made clear that the EU’s priority now was its own future.
“I want to state clearly that the shaping of the future of the 27 has priority over the negotiations with Britain over its exit,” Europe’s leading power broker said on arrival.
“We will conduct these talks in a good spirit,” she added. “But the clear focus has to be on the future of the 27.”
France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke of working with Germany to revive European integration and did not refer at all to Britain during his remarks before talks got under way.
Over after-dinner coffee, May will outline her plan to provide early guarantees for some three million people living in Britain from other countries in the bloc, a British source said.
But her wings have been clipped – not only in Britain where voters denied her a majority in parliament, but also in Brussels where EU leaders will try to stop her from discussing Brexit beyond a quick briefing. One EU official said too much detail from May would be unhelpful, as it could provoke reactions.
Instead, once she has left the room, they will continue their own discussion of Britain’s departure from the European Union, notably on which city gets to host two EU agencies being pulled out of London – a potentially divisive issue for the 27.
“Not the only dreamer”
Weakened by an election she did not need to call, May has watered down her government’s programme to try to get it through parliament and set a softer tone in her approach to Brexit.
Yet her aims have held – she wants a clean break from the bloc, leaving the lucrative single market and customs union and so reducing immigration and ending EU courts’ jurisdiction.
On Thursday, her finance minister, Philip Hammond called for an early agreement on transitional arrangements to ease uncertainty that he said was hurting business.
Reflecting, confusion on the continent about what kind of Brexit she will ask for, summit chair Donald Tusk said ahead of a separate meeting with May: “We can hear different predictions, coming from different people, about the possible outcome of these negotiations: hard Brexit, soft Brexit or no deal.”
Some Britons had asked him if he could imagine Britain not leaving after all: “The European Union was built on dreams that seemed impossible to achieve. So, who knows?,” the former Polish prime minister said before quoting John Lennon’s song “Imagine”:
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one.”
Other leaders took up the late Beatle’s theme. President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, which has over 100,000 citizens in Britain, insisted relations would remain close and tweeted the Motown lyric: “#Brexit: ain’t no mountain high enough”.
But Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel, who argues for a need to protect EU integration from British ambivalence toward the project, tweeted: “It’s time for action and certainty. Not for dreams and uncertainty #Brexit #FutureofEurope”
Speaking to reporters at the summit, Michel said: “Theresa May is in a very difficult situation in terms of leadership so we will have to see what position Great Britain will defend.
“We can speculate, but it is a waste of time.”
A British official said May would offer “new elements” in a paper on citizens’ rights to be published next week. There may be sticking points with Brussels, such as the cut-off date for EU citizens in Britain to retain rights under the bloc’s free movement rules and EU demands to preserve a panoply of rights in the future that may irk those keen to reduce immigrant numbers.
May will also aim to show that while still a member of the EU, Britain will contribute to other summit discussions, pressing for more action to encourage social media companies to clamp down on internet extremism and for the EU to roll over sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.
Driven by Germany and France’s new pro-EU president Macron, some EU states are keen to set up a new defence cooperation of a kind that Britain has long resisted as a member. British officials say London, with little power to block them, now accepts the current EU proposals.
British strengths in the intelligence and security fields, as well as its military clout, are key elements in a future relationship with the EU that May wants to emphasise.
By Elizabeth Piper and Alastair Macdonald
(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald, Robin Emmott, Jan Strupczewski, Elizabeth Miles and Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels; Editing by Noah Barkin)