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BRUSSELS – Prime Minister Theresa May is heading to a European Union summit Thursday with a solemn pledge to treat EU residents well once Britain leaves the bloc — the latest attempt to reinvigorate the lifeless divorce negotiations.
At EU headquarters in Brussels, May will face 27 EU counterparts who could block her goal of quickly wrapping up the first phase of Brexit talks. The negotiations so far have been limited to the terms of Britain's departure.
May initially hoped that post-divorce issues such as future trade relations could be on the table starting next week.
The talks launched earlier this year have stalled over several issues, including the future status of the 3 million EU citizens living in Britain and the 1 million Britons living elsewhere in the bloc. Some of those concerned about what Brexit will mean for them have accused politicians of using them as pawns in the deal-making.
May said in an open letter to EU nationals published Wednesday that "nothing could have been further from the truth."
Britain and the EU are in "touching distance" on a deal on citizens' rights deal, the British leader said.
"EU citizens who have made their lives in the U.K. have made a huge contribution to our country," May wrote. "We want them and their families to stay. I couldn't be clearer."
May said a "streamlined digital process" overseen by European nationals would be created for EU citizens to register as U.K. residents.
EU leaders such as European Council President Donald Tusk have been waiting for the British government to provide such details.
Tusk said on the eve of the summit that for the two sides to meet the goal of completing the first phase of talks by year's end, May must translate her government's intentions into negotiating positions.
Tusk said he was "absolutely sure it is still possible to achieve this final first phase in December but for this we need more concrete proposals from the British side, to be honest."
The EU to discuss future relations with Britain until there is "sufficient progress" on three issues: citizens' rights, a transparent Irish border and Britain's exit tab.
The outstanding costs Britain needs to pay for commitments it made as an EU member remains an obstacle. Britain has floated a bill of 20 billion euros ($23.6 billion.) The starting price for the rest of EU is 50 billion euros ($60 billion.)
Asked whether 20 billion euros was "peanuts" compared to what Britain owes, Tusk said, "I have never seen 20 billion peanuts in my life."
May and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker committed to "accelerate" the talks this week. Tusk said he would tell leaders of the other EU countries that even December is a tight deadline for getting the three preliminary issues resolved.
"I don't expect any kind of breakthrough" at the summit, Tusk said.
"We have to work really hard between October and December to finalize this so-called first phase," he said.
While the June 2016 referendum that called for Britain to pull out of the EU has created political chaos in London, the other EU nations have recovered from the initial shock and stood side by side throughout the negotiations.
May has personally lobbied German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to side with Britain on jump-starting the talks to encompass a future relationship.
The other 27 leaders instead are expected to huddle over strategy for staying united during talks on post-Brexit trade that could start in late December.
Officials say the negotiations should conclude by November 2018 at the latest to finish off the complicated approval process by March 29, 2019, when Britain is supposed to leave.
Lawless reported from London