LONDON – Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday there is a new sense of optimism about negotiations over Britain’s departure from the European Union, insisting that a preliminary deal has given fresh impetus to the talks.
She told the House of Commons that Britain will be able to leave the European Union “in a smooth and orderly way.”
May updated lawmakers on the agreement reached Friday with the EU that covers the main divorce issues. Those include the rights of citizens affected by Brexit, Britain’s financial obligations to the EU and how to keep open the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
Leaders of the other 27 EU members are expected to ratify the agreement later this week, allowing Brexit talks to move on to trade and security co-operation. May told Parliament the next phase would not be easy but that the atmospherics have improved.
“Of course, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” May said in a statement. “But there is, I believe, a new sense of optimism now in the talks and I fully hope and expect that we will confirm the arrangements I have set out today in the European Council later this week.”
She said the implementation period she seeks will be discussed in the next phase of the talks, and called for discussions to begin immediately.
But weekend comments by the official in charge of the talks have threatened to spoil May’s triumphant moment. In an interview with the BBC on Sunday, Brexit chief David Davis suggested that last week’s agreement was a “statement of intent” that wasn’t legally binding.
The comments caused unease in Ireland, where leaders demanded provisions in the agreement to ensure Brexit won’t restrict travel and trade between the Republic of Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland. Officials in both parts of the island say the border must remain open to protect the Irish peace process.
The Irish government branded Davis’ comments “bizarre” and insisted that Britain must live up to the commitments it made last week.
Davis Monday tried to mitigate the fallout, insisting his words had been “completely twisted.”
“What I actually said yesterday … was we want to protect the peace process, want to protect Ireland from the impact of Brexit for them, and I said this was a statement of intent which was much more than just legally enforceable,” Davis told LBC Radio.
“In the event that the withdrawal agreement doesn’t happen then we would still be seeking to maintain an invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” he added. “I was making the point that it was much more than just in the treaty, it’s what we want to do anyway.”
The confusion prompted Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to question the government’s competence.
“We respect the result of the referendum but due to this government’s shambolic negotiations it’s getting increasingly difficult to believe this is a government capable of negotiating a good deal for Britain,” he said.
He pressed May for details about the “divorce bill” Britain will have to pay to leave the EU.
In Brussels, the Europeans were thinking about form as well as substance.
European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said that while the deal was not legally binding, it was regarded as a pact of honour.
“We see the joint report of (EU Brexit negotiator) Michel Barnier and David Davis as a deal between gentlemen and it is the clear understanding that it is fully backed and endorsed by the U.K. government,” he said. He noted that EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agreed on that with May on Friday. “They shook hands.”