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Brexit among many open questions from EU summit

British Prime Minister Theresa May said negotiations on leaving the EU would take time at her first summit in Brussels. Pressing concerns such as Syria and a failing free trade deal with Canada stole much of her thunder.

A two-day EU leaders' summit in Brussels to discuss the Syrian conflict, the CETA free trade deal with Canada facing resistance in Belgium's Wallonia, and Brexit wrapped up on Friday, drawing few concrete outcomes, as the bloc struggles to develop a common front on a host of pressing issues.

The summit was the first attended by Theresa May since she became UK prime minister following June's vote to leave the EU. May said that Britain sought to be "a strong and engaged partner" in a new type of relationship with the bloc, while actively shaping European Union policies until it formally moves to leave.

"We are not looking to adopt another model that somebody else has in relation to their trade with the European Union. What we want is to develop what is a new relationship for the UK with the EU," she said.

Ahead of negotiations slated to last two years if not more, May's opening position is as clear as it is seemingly incompatible with Europe's. The Conservative prime minister would like both the maximum possible control of Britain's borders, and the maximum possible access to Europe's free trade area.

Europe's opening position, meanwhile, is that the EU's "four freedoms" - guaranteeing the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people - are only available as a full pack of four. 

'Best possible deal'

"We want to have the best possible deal for trade in goods and services with, and operation within, the single European market," May said. 

At the same time, she said Britain had been discussing trading relationships with third countries.

"This will not undermine the EU's trade agenda, it is not even in competition with it. We will continue to help the EU reach those important trade agreements," she said. "It's about seizing the opportunities of Brexit and forging an ambitious and optimistic new role for Britain in the world."

Speaking to the other 27 heads of state and government on Thursday evening, May said that she envisioned "difficult moments" once Britain invokes Article 50 - a move that will start a two year process of negotiations to leave the European Union. The EU has said Britain cannot formally start negotiations until Article 50 is triggered; May recently said that she intended to do this by the end of March 2017.

German MEP doubts desire for continued UK involvement

May was excluded from last month's informal summit in Bratislava which involved only 27 of the EU's members, a response to the shock vote to leave the bloc. Perhaps partly in response to this, May told European leaders that she did not want a two-track EU to develop prior to the UK's exit, saying Britain should remain involved in EU decisions until its departure is finalized.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4, German MEP Manfred Weber, who leads the center-right EPP bloc in the European Parliament that includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), commented that these demands were a tall order.

"It's not really normal that such a member who wants to leave a club like the EU also wants to decide the future of this club. That's really creating a lot of anger, the behavior of the British government," he said on Friday.

May also sought to reassure the European Council that the UK would remain a reliable regional partner - for instance as a NATO member, close ally of the US and an active member in the coalition targeting the so-called "Islamic State." 

cw/msh (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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