May's Speech Leaves EU Cold as Demand for Substance Continues

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit speech might have soothed some nerves in her Conservative party, but it left European Union policy makers crying out for more details.

While Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, welcomed the “clarity” that May provided, other EU officials said there were still many questions that urgently need answering.

Prominent members of the European Parliament -- which has a veto over the entire Brexit deal -- said May needed to do much more.

“Theresa May needed to move beyond vague aspirations,” the European Parliament’s chief Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, said in a statement. “We can only hope that serious proposals have been put in the post.”

Manfred Weber, a key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leader of the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament, said he was “even more concerned” after May’s speech.

“I don’t see how we could reach an agreement on Brexit if the U.K. government continues to bury its head in the sand like this,” he tweeted.

May’s challenge remains to bridge the divides in her own party while giving the EU a clear position to negotiate with. The EU has set out principles it says it won’t compromise on, but some of these are at odds with May’s vision for the U.K.’s post-Brexit future.

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Her proposals for customs and how to keep the Irish border invisible weren’t new and do little to solve the immediate problems, an EU official with knowledge of the negotiations said. The U.K. needs to put much more of substance on the table if it is to reach an agreement on the most pressing issues, the official said.

“I’m afraid this doesn’t really advance us very much,” said Michael Leigh, a former European Commission director general and senior fellow at the Geman Marshall Fund in Brussels.

He added: “The tone, the manner, the style, it’s more moderate, you feel there’s a certain will to move forward, but when you come to put it under the magnifying glass and look at the substance, not much seems to have changed.”

EU President Donald Tusk said next week he’ll present guidelines for the bloc’s negotiating position. Around the same time, British and EU negotiators are scheduled to resume talks on the post-Brexit transition period, which the U.K. wants to settle by the end of this month.

“There’s some progress, it was much more realistic, there’s some understanding that this process will involve trade-offs, but I think when it comes to some of the concrete detail it is still unclear how this could be achieved,” said Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Center, a think tank in Brussels.

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