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[BRUSSELS] UK Prime Minister Theresa May asked European leaders to be creative and to persevere to reach a deal when Brexit negotiations move on to trade.
Over dinner at a summit of the bloc's heads of government in Brussels, Mrs May urged her 27 European Union (EU) counterparts to make speedy progress in agreeing to a transition period after the UK leaves the bloc in 2019, a senior British official said. She said she makes "no secret of wanting to move on to the next phase and approach it with ambition and creativity".
"I believe this is in the best interests of the United Kingdom and the European Union," Mrs May said. "A particular priority should be agreement of the implementation period so that we can bring greater certainty to businesses in the UK and across the 27."
Mrs May's comments, which were received with a round of applause by leaders at the dinner, came hours before EU governments are set to conclude that sufficient progress has been made to allow talks on the future relationship to begin. Initially, the second stage of negotiations will focus on a transitional period after 2019, as the UK has yet to define what kind of trade agreement it wants and the bloc won't clarify its own position before March.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking to reporters at the end of the summit's first day, said that Mrs May had made "good offers" which might allow leaders to agree that sufficient progress has been made to progress. She still sounded a note of caution.
"There still remain many questions to be solved and time is running out," she said.
Ms Merkel is among continental leaders who have said the second stage of Brexit negotiations will be "incomparably" more difficult than the first, during which the two sides spent months discussing how to avert a hard border with Ireland, the divorce bill and the rights of EU citizens.
The British prime minister said that the UK and the EU have shown what can be achieved with commitment and perseverance. "We've had very good discussions," she said as she left.
While all 27 EU states agreed on what they want from the UK ahead of its departure, there's no guarantee that a similar consensus will be reached on expectations for a potential free trade agreement. "I have no doubt that the real test of our unity will be the second phase of Brexit talks," European president Donald Tusk told reporters in Brussels.
The UK wants talks on a transition phase to be completed by March, with a full free-trade deal ready to sign on the day the country leaves the bloc, March 29, 2019.