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article imageBritish PM gathers ministers ahead of Brexit speech

By Alice RITCHIE (AFP)     Sep 21, 2017 in World

British ministers put on a show of unity Thursday as they met on the eve of Prime Minister Theresa May's major speech on Brexit, which has been overshadowed by cabinet divisions.

May is hoping her speech in Florence on Friday will break the deadlock in negotiations with the European Union, before talks resume next week.

But the run-up to the event has been dominated by an intervention by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who last week laid out his own vision for life outside the EU.

In making the case for a clean break with the bloc, he was accused of trying to tie the hands of May, whose hold on power remains fragile since losing her parliamentary majority in the June election.

The prime minister flew home with Johnson overnight from New York, where they had attended the UN General Assembly, before chairing a cabinet meeting in Downing Street.

After two-and-a-half hours of discussion, Johnson walked out next to finance minister Philip Hammond, who has advocated closer ties with the EU. Both men were smiling.

Six months after May began the two-year countdown to Britain's withdrawal, EU leaders are still waiting for details on what she wants from the divorce.

Britain's cabinet - as united as a "nest of singing birds" over Brexit? So says Forei...
Britain's cabinet - as united as a "nest of singing birds" over Brexit? So says Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson

Johnson's move only highlighted the lack of clarity. He subsequently denied rumours he might resign, and insisted the cabinet was as unified as a "nest of singing birds".

A fourth round of talks with the European Commission is due to start next week, and London is keen to make progress so the negotiations can move onto the question of trade.

Brussels is hoping May will break the logjam with an offer on Britain's financial settlement, one of the most contentious issues.

The Financial Times reported that she would offer to meet Britain's contributions until the end of the EU's current budget period in 2020 -- after Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019.

Nick Timothy, one of May's closest advisors before he quit in June, said she needed to offer a "serious plan to cut through the complexity".

In an article in the Daily Telegraph, he warned that warring ministers must "stop their games now, because the stakes for Britain's future are too high".

- Speaking to EU leaders -

May's speech will be watched closely in Brussels, where officials are also hoping for progress on the rights of European citizens in Britain, and the fraught question of the Irish border.

In New York this week, the prime minister met French President Emmanuel Macron, Dutch premier Mark Rutte and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who will not attend Friday's speech.

She will also host European Council president Donald Tusk for talks in London on Tuesday.

Speaking to the media at the UN, May highlighted the role played by EU leaders in the Brexit talks, even if the negotiations are being conducted by the Commission, the bloc's executive arm.

"The decision will always be one that will be taken by the leaders," she was reported as saying.

However, EU officials have previously warned against attempts to "divide and rule" the bloc, which has so far shown remarkable unity on the issue of Brexit.

- 'Crunch time' -

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been accused of misusing official statistics in s...
Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been accused of misusing official statistics in setting out his vision for Brexit
Chris J Ratcliffe, AFP

Business leaders are also anxiously awaiting details on a transitional deal, which would bridge the gap between Britain's exit and the implementation of new trading arrangements with the EU.

Miles Celic, chief executive of The City UK, the lobby group for the financial sector, said it was "crunch time".

"Many firms are already moving parts of their operations out of the UK and Europe. When they've gone, it's hard to see them coming back," he said.

Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman for the opposition Labour party, said May would have to show more flexibility than she has so far to unlock the talks.

"The worst outcome is that she says nothing, inflames the situation, making progress less likely," he told The Guardian.

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