Theresa May tells EU: I’m still in control despite Commons loss

Theresa May lobbied for swift agreement on the terms of a post-Brexit transition period as she sought to reassure concerned leaders over dinner at an EU summit that she was still in control despite her Commons defeat.

May was applauded at the dinner on Thursday evening after she thanked EU leaders for their help in concluding the first phase of Brexit talks, in a sign of general relief and approval for May.

“She is our colleague. Britain is a member state. We are not only trying to be, but we are polite and friendly people,” European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said as he left the summit.

The prime minister’s setback in the Commons on Wednesday evening had provoked questions in Brussels over Downing Street’s ability to negotiate the second phase of talks, along with hope in some quarters that the UK may eventually reverse its decision to leave the bloc.

As leaders prepared to agree on Friday morning that sufficient progress had been made in the first phase of the negotiations to move the talks on, concerns were further raised over whether May had sufficient grip to offer an agreed UK position on the future.

The EU has set the British cabinet a three-month deadline to provide clarity on its approach to a future trade deal.

After the dinner, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she it was clear May had done enough to move talks on, but warned time was running out. “There are still a lot of problems to solve. And time is of the essence.”

On Wednesday, MPs voted by 309-305 to limit ministers’ power to make sweeping changes to the law before parliament has approved a Brexit deal. The cabinet is yet to have a substantive discussion about any future trade arrangement with the bloc.

Over dinner, however, the British prime minister reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to delivering a smooth and orderly exit from the EU.

May told the leaders that the British government “makes no secret of wanting to move on to the next phase and to approaching it with ambition and creativity”.

“I believe this is in the best interests of the UK and the European Union,” May said. “A particular priority should be agreement on the implementation period so that we can bring greater certainty to businesses in the UK and across the 27.”

While conceding that the future negotiations were likely to be difficult she also insisted the UK and the EU had demonstrated what could be achieved with commitment and perseverance on both sides.

Arriving at the summit on Thursday, after attending a memorial to those who died in the Grenfell Tower fire, May had told reporters the government was still “on course to deliver Brexit”.

She said: “I am disappointed with the amendment but actually the EU withdrawal bill is making good progress through the House of Commons.”


Theresa May’s ‘disappointment’ at Brexit bill defeat – video

Government sources suggested they were happy for the EU to offer what is expected to be a vague declaration on the future trading relationship on Friday, as they felt their hands had been tied in the first phase by strict guidelines set by the EU in April.

The two sides appear to be sticking to very different arguments about the scale of the trade arrangement that is likely to be in place by March 2019.

EU negotiators have suggested it will merely be a political agreement that will be fleshed out with detailed negotiations during the transition phase. British ministers insist that the substantial agreement must be complete by the Brexit deadline.

The UK has also insisted that preliminary talks on trade could start earlier in the new year.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, said on Thursday that he did not expect talks about trade to start until the spring. “The indicative timetable is that we will spend the next three months or so working on the withdrawal agreement, putting into a legal, international agreement what was agreed last week, talking a bit about the two-year transition phase,” he said. “And once we have that done, we can then talk about the new trading relationship.”

Despite the May’s comments, the Austrian chancellor, Christian Kern, said he still believed Britain could still change its mind about Brexit.

“I hope that it could be reversed because there will be a lot of big issues and challenges that will not be easy to solve,” he said. “There will be a lot of tensions in the domestic political area in Great Britain.”

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, whose country is an advocate for a close relationship with the UK after Brexit, was among those who praised May. But he called on her to swiftly set out a vision of the future to allow substantive talks on trade to start.

Rutte said: “I still think she has a formidable stature here and last Friday showed all of us that we should not underestimate Theresa May. She’s a formidable politician.”

Asked whether he believed May could still deliver on her promises, he said: “Yes, I do think so, because I believe in UK society and also in the political circles there’s widespread support for a reasonable negotiated exit of Britain from the EU.”

In response to David Davis’s suggestion that last week’s agreement between the UK and EU had no legal standing, Rutte added: “An eyebrow was raised here and there because of that comment but I think it makes it more necessary to have as soon as possible that deal of last Friday in legally binding text so that we cannot have a misunderstanding exactly what was agreed.”

The Conservative leader in the European parliament, Ashley Fox, said he was disappointed by those who had voted against the government on Wednesday night, adding: “It is not going to help the UK negotiate a good deal.”

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