UK's May gathers divided Cabinet, seeking Brexit compromise

LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May was gathering her divided ministers Thursday for a marathon meeting aimed at hammering out a common position on Brexit.

May's "inner Cabinet" was due to meet through the afternoon and evening at Chequers, the prime minister's country retreat outside London.

The Conservative government is divided between supporters of "hard Brexit," who want a clean break with the EU so Britain can strike new trade deals around the world, and those seeking closer ties to soften the economic shock of leaving.

The first group includes Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, the second Treasury chief Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd.

May does not have much time to seek a compromise. Britain is due to start negotiating future trade relations with the EU next month, and will officially leave the bloc on March 29, 2019.

EU leaders have expressed frustration at a lack of detail from Britain about its goals. May has said the U.K. plans to leave the bloc's single market for goods and services and its tariff-free customs union, but nonetheless wants a bespoke, sweeping free-trade deal.

The EU has consistently warned that Britain cannot "cherry pick" benefits of membership with none of the obligations.

May is under pressure from both sides. More than 60 "hard Brexit"-supporting Conservative lawmakers insisted this week that Britain must have "full regulatory autonomy" — code for refusal to adopt some EU rules in exchange for access to its programs and market.

Labour lawmaker Hilary Benn, a supporter of soft Brexit who heads the House of Commons Brexit committee, said the next few weeks "will have a crucial influence on the shape, and therefore the outcome, of the negotiations that will follow."

In a letter to Brexit Secretary David Davis, Benn said there was an urgent need for more detail from the government, "so that Parliament, U.K. business and the EU27 can all see exactly what kind of future relationship the U.K. will be seeking."

Meanwhile, Amnesty International claimed Thursday that leaving the EU could "substantially reduce" Britons' human rights protections.

The rights group said in its annual report that under draft legislation drawn up by the U.K. government, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights would not be incorporated into British law after Brexit.

"Under cover of Brexit the government is planning to strip the British public of protections — and people don't even know their hard-won rights are under threat," said Amnesty U.K. director Kate Allen.

It also said Britain might "soft-pedal" criticism of rights abuses in other countries as it seeks to strike new trade deals around the world.

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