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EU leaders to agree Brexit talks guidelines
[BRUSSELS] European Union leaders will lay the ground Friday for the next phase of Brexit talks after British Prime Minister Theresa May urged them to seize a "new dynamic" in the negotiations.
The 27 leaders meeting in Brussels are set to adopt negotiating guidelines for talks on the future relationship with Britain, and greenlight a deal for a 21-month transition period.
Mrs May stayed overnight to join delayed talks on the EU's trade dispute with the United States, but will leave her counterparts later Friday when the summit turns to the topic of Brexit.
Over dinner on Thursday, she urged her colleagues to use the momentum from the transition agreement to tackle the tough questions of trade and the Irish border with "energy and ambition".
"We have the chance, now, to create a new dynamic in the talks to work together to explore workable solutions - in Northern Ireland, in our future security cooperation and in order to ensure the future prosperity of all our people," Mrs May said, according to her office.
She said the deal struck this week on a post-Brexit transition took "compromise on both sides" but had delivered certainty for businesses and citizens across Britain and the European Union.
Mrs May will also be hoping to capitalise on a diplomatic victory on Thursday after securing unanimous EU backing for Britain's assessment that Russia was "highly likely" responsible for the poisoning of an ex-spy in the English city of Salisbury.
The transition period is intended to smooth Britain's withdrawal from the bloc in March 2019, and extends the UK membership of the EU's single market - but without voting rights - until the end of 2020.
But key issues remain.
The EU's negotiating guidelines warn Britain against backtracking on the commitments that led to the transition accord, and call for "intensified efforts" on the outstanding parts of the divorce.
"Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," the guidelines say, according to a draft copy seen by AFP.
The EU and Britain have agreed a "backstop" that Northern Ireland would remain part of the EU's customs union if there is no better idea - but London is deeply opposed to this.
Just weeks earlier May had said no British premier could ever accept such an idea.
"Once we move on to the stage of being able to talk about the future partnership, that is where we believe the solution to the Irish border will be found," a senior UK official said.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar, who met Mrs May on the sidelines of the summit on Thursday, said he envisaged a trading relationship that was "so close that many of measures in the backstop may become unnecessary".
The EU guidelines say that "negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full".
They also welcome a letter Mrs May wrote on Monday giving "written assurances notably regarding Ireland/Northern Ireland".
Days before the summit, EU President Donald Tusk had raised fears that some countries would not back the plan, with Spain in particular expressing concerns about the fate of the British territory of Gibraltar.
But he later announced that he had "good news" for Mrs May and officials said that Madrid had been placated by the addition of a special mention of Gibraltar in the guidelines.