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article image'Miracles' needed for Brexit progress, EU warns

By Alex PIGMAN (AFP)     Sep 28, 2017 in Politics

The EU warned Friday that Britain needs a miracle to unlock the next phase of Brexit talks by next month, as leaders discussed the post-Brexit reform vision of French President Emmanuel Macron.

The talks in Tallinn, Estonia were supposed to be devoted to the digital future of Europe, but Britain's departure from the bloc and Macron's plans to reboot the union hijacked the agenda.

The youthful French leader has given new impetus to a year of European soul-searching after the Brexit vote, even as the bloc tries to sort out the nitty-gritty before Britain leaves in March 2019.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned that there was next to no chance that the divorce talks would get far enough by the end of next month to move on to discussions on a future trade deal, a crucial demand of Britain.

"By the end of October we will not have sufficient progress," Juncker said as he arrived for the second day of the summit.

"I'm saying there will be no sufficient progress from now until October unless miracles will happen."

EU leaders are set to decide at a summit on October 19-20 whether there has been "sufficient progress" on three key issues: Britain's exit bill, the fate of Northern Ireland, and the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.

- 'Better vibe' -

British Prime Minister Theresa May, however, insisted there had been "very good progress" on the rights of EU expatriates, following a major Brexit speech she gave in Florence, Italy, last week.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart David Davis wrapped up a fourth round of Brexit negotiations in Brussels on Thursday saying there had been progress following May's speech.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said there was a "better vibe and a better mood" coming from the talks, but added it was "still very evident there's more work to be done."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU's most influential leader, said there had been "progress" and praised "very constructive" talks with May after a short bilateral in the Estonian capital.

Eye-to-eye: Estonia's Prime Juri Ratas and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R...
Eye-to-eye: Estonia's Prime Juri Ratas and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R) embrace after a press conference at the EU's digital summit

Estonia, which holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, bills itself as in the vanguard of the digital revolution and urged the summit to help promote tech in Europe.

At the digital talks, Macron called on sceptical counterparts to overhaul tax rules so that more of the profits from Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook and Google fall into Europe's public coffers.

In a closely-watched speech on Europe on Tuesday, Macron thundered against high tech companies that had become the "freeloaders of the modern world".

Juncker said the EU will propose such a tax next year.

- 'Wake-up call' -

Macron’s proposal was part of a wider vision that the 39-year-old leader unveiled in a landmark speech in Paris, aimed at reviving a European project hurt by Brexit, populism and the refugee crisis.

"There's a collective wake-up call that a leap forward is indispensable in Europe," Macron said at the talks.

At dinner in the Estonian capital on Thursday, EU national leaders held a debate about Macron's plans.

Merkel, whose backing Macron sees as key for his ideas, indicated her support for Macron's new vision, giving a boost to the Franco-German alliance that must be strong to advance reform in the EU.

"There is a wide agreement between France and Germany when it comes to the proposals, although we must work on the details," said Merkel.

Other countries worried about France's ambition, which could leave more cautious countries behind.

"Dividing Europe into several speeds, groups, clubs, small or big, is simply a mistake," said Beata Szydlo, prime minister of Poland whose government holds fraught relations with Brussels.

The leaders discussed the ideas -- over courses of flank steak, salmon and rabbit liver -- during a "good and constructive debate", said European Council President Donald Tusk.

Based on the discussion, Tusk, who coordinates EU summit meetings, said he will in two weeks unveil a programme for the bloc's leaders for 2017 and 2018.

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