May to urge new partnership, transition period for Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May will try to kick-start faltering Brexit negotiations on Friday by proposing a new economic and security partnership between Britain and the European Union, plus a transition period after the U.K.'s formal departure in 2019, May's office said.

Downing Street released extracts from a speech the prime minister is set to deliver in Florence, Italy as EU officials were suggesting the British government likely is hoping in vain to get the talks to a new phase next month.

The speech about Brexit that May plans to give in one of the historic centers of Europe will say the two sides share "a profound sense of responsibility" to ensure their parting goes "smoothly and sensibly," the prime minister's office said Thursday.

May also will use the speech to urge both EU and U.K. officials to work toward having Britain's departure remembered "not for a relationship that ended, but a new partnership that began."

May's office said the speech will "discuss a vision for a bold new economic and security partnership and set out the prime minister's plan for a time-limited implementation period, offering certainty and clarity to businesses and citizens."

EU leaders have been urging Britain to spell out what it wants from Brexit. In March, May triggered a two-year countdown to her country's exit from the EU. The negotiations since then have yielded little progress on key issues such as the status of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border and the amount Britain must pay to settle its financial commitments to the bloc.

EU officials say talks can't move on to future relations with Britain until key divorce terms — the Irish border, the financial settlement and the rights of citizens hit by Brexit — have been agreed upon.

May's speech is intended to help break the logjam, with reports suggesting she will assure EU leaders that Britain is willing to pay its fair share.

But the British leader is caught in a bind. The EU is seeking a multibillion-pound (dollar, euro) payment that is anathema to the more euroskeptic members of May's government.

May's Cabinet is split between Brexit true believers, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who want a sharp break with the EU and those such as Treasury chief Philip Hammond who want to soften the economic impact of Brexit through a long status-quo transition period.

Johnson blasted open government divisions over Europe with a long newspaper article last week laying out his vision of a "glorious Brexit" — a move widely seen as pre-empting May's announcements in her Florence speech.

May faced calls to fire the foreign secretary, and had to insist that she remains in control, saying the government is "driven from the front."

May called a special Cabinet meeting Thursday in a bid to unite fractious ministers behind her speech. The meeting stretched on for 2 ½ hours before ministers emerged with fixed smiles.

In a display of unity, Johnson and Hammond — leading advocates of "hard" and "soft" Brexit respectively — walked out the door of the prime minister's offices at 10 Downing St. side by side.

Britain hopes EU leaders will agree at an Oct. 19-20 meeting that "sufficient progress" has been made and the talks can move on to phase two: the future relations and trade between the U.K. and the bloc.

A senior EU official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said Thursday that "it's too early to tell" whether that will happen.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said "there is still today major uncertainty on each of the key issues of the first phase."

"To make progress, we are waiting for clear commitments from the U.K. on these precise issues," Barnier told Italian parliamentarians in Rome. "We will listen attentively and constructively to Theresa May's important speech tomorrow in Florence."

Barnier, who will meet with British negotiators next week for a new round of talks, has repeatedly warned that time is of the essence. Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, but any deal must be sealed by October 2018 to leave time for national parliaments to endorse it.

"The question facing us over the coming months is serious, but simple," Barnier said. "Will the United Kingdom leave in an orderly fashion with an agreement, or not?"


Cook reported from Brussels.