It's Brexit Decision Time, EU to Tell May, as Progress Stalls

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union will press Prime Minister Theresa May for a clearer idea of her plans for Brexit as she goes face-to-face with her fellow leaders on Thursday for the final time before a crunch summit next month.

EU diplomats say they’re alarmed at the minimal progress in Brexit negotiations since a March breakthrough, with the British cabinet continuing to bicker over its approach to future customs arrangements. With five months to go before both sides want a deal, the EU is keen to keep the pressure on May to avoid an 11th-hour showdown later this year with multiple issues still unresolved.

“I don’t see any progress on Brexit from the last council” in March, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who is hosting the Sofia meeting, told reporters on Wednesday.

Brexit isn’t on the main agenda of the gathering, which will be dominated by issues related to the Western Balkans. Instead, May will sit down with EU President Donald Tusk, who will chair June’s summit, on the sidelines Thursday morning.

White Paper

Tusk is likely to request that May give details about the U.K. government’s plans and ask whether a white paper policy document the government intends to publish next month could change the EU’s response in June, according to an EU official, who asked not to be identified discussing the bloc’s approach.

When leaders agreed in March on a set of guidelines to shape the EU’s negotiating position on the future relationship they said they would revise them in June should the U.K.’s stance evolve by then.

The U.K.’s decision to publish the white paper is a welcome development but will need to be swiftly translated into a negotiating position because time is running short, a second EU official said.

The EU sees the June gathering as the last major milestone in the Brexit talks before both sides want to wrap up in October. It wants a clearer commitment from the U.K. to a solution to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland so that negotiators can focus on the post-Brexit U.K.-EU relationship in areas such as trade, security and financial services over the summer.

The Irish border issue remains the main obstacle to a Brexit divorce deal and if there’s no agreement the U.K. faces the prospect of crashing out of the bloc in March with no arrangements in place to soften the blow.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.