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EU to offer May hope of post-Brexit talks at summit -draft text

From Reuters - October 12, 2017

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders are ready to hand Theresa May an olive branch in deadlocked Brexit negotiations next week by launching their own internal preparations for a transition to a new relationship with Britain.

A draft statement prepared for next Fridays talks and sent out for approval on Thursday to the 27 other EU governments made final Brussels rejection of opening free trade talks now, but gave the beleaguered British prime minister hope that they would do so in December -- and that, if she ups her offers on divorce terms, the EU will be ready to start talking almost right away.

With nerves fraying and threats flying about walking out without a deal come the March 2019 deadline for departure, the pound took a knock when EU negotiator Michel Barnier said a new round of talks this week had ended in continued deadlock over a British refusal to clarify how much it will pay on leaving.

But it rallied on word that, despite tough demands from EU governments on what they want from London, the Union is ready to talk about how to avoid a hard Brexit and to ease Britain out with less disruption -- probably by agreeing to keep it in the single market for a couple of years, diplomats say.

The draft of conclusions which would be issued by leaders of the 27 next Friday, a day after meeting May in a full EU summit, still have to be agreed. Envoys, including from heavyweights Germany and France, objected last week to a suggestion from Barnier that the EU should start working on transition plans.

But EU officials noted that summit chair Donald Tusk has spoken to almost all 27 leaders in recent days -- he briefed May by telephone on his preparations on Thursday. Envoys and ministers from the 27 will discuss the draft in the coming days.

A senior EU official closely involved in the negotiations said Brussels did not expect major changes to the summit text.

INTERNAL PREPARATORY DISCUSSIONS

The first version, seen by Reuters, confirms what Barnier and others have said this month: that there is not sufficient progress on agreeing three key elements of a withdrawal treaty for leaders to agree now to open the trade talks May wants.

But in an effort to defuse accusations in Britain about EU intransigence, the leaders would welcome progress to date on their three key issues: the rights of 3 million EU citizens in Britain; protecting peace in Northern Ireland from the effect of a new border on the island; and Britains outstanding payments.

They would pledge to reassess things at their next summit in mid-December -- Barnier on Thursday spoke of making progress in the next two months. And in order not to waste time once they do decide to launch talks on a post-Brexit future, they would ask Barnier and their envoys to start preparing now for a transition -- albeit without actually starting talking to Britain about it.

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