Prime Minister Theresa May tried to unite her fractious Cabinet behind her plan to reboot faltering Brexit negotiations Thursday, as a senior European Union official suggested British hopes of moving the divorce talks on to a new phase next month might be dashed.
May gathered ministers to reveal details of a speech she will deliver in Florence, Italy on Friday. She has chosen the city, one of the historic hearts of Europe, as the location for an address that the government says will stress Britain's desire for a close and special relationship with the bloc.
Britain triggered a two-year countdown to departure from the EU in March. Since then, negotiations have made little progress on key issues including 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.
EU leaders will be looking for May to signal Britain's willingness to pay up. But some members of her Cabinet oppose paying a multibillion-pound (dollar, euro) bill.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson blasted open government divisions over Europe with a long article laying out his vision of a “glorious Brexit.” May faced calls to fire him and had to insist that she is firmly in control, saying the government is “driven from the front.”
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 said Thursday that “it's too early to tell” whether the leaders can decide. The official briefed reporters only on condition that she not be named.
She affirmed that the October summit is not a deadline, saying “we all know that negotiations don't usually go according to our time plan, so we will take all the time needed.”
Britain believes its departure and future relations are intertwined and must be discussed together.
The senior official said Britain's EU partner nations have full confidence that the bloc's Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, will inform them once he believes that sufficient progress has been made.
“We have all trusted Michel Barnier to be able to deliver this verdict at some point, and then the heads of state and government to decide on this,” she said.
Barnier and his team meet with British negotiators next week for a new round of Brexit talks.
Barnier 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 parliaments to endorse it.