Brexit: EU leaders aim to let May down gently over trade talks

PM’s counterparts at summit will refuse to widen Brexit negotiations but talk up her efforts for fear of weakening her further

Theresa May will emphasise the concessions made in her Florence speech at a key summit dinner (Photo: Niklas Halle'N/AFP)
Theresa May will emphasise the concessions made in her Florence speech at a key summit dinner (Photo: Niklas Halle'N/AFP)

EU leaders at a crunch summit dinner are set to rebuff Theresa May’s appeal for trade talks, while they seek to publicly talk up her efforts in the Brexit negotiations.

According to reports, they fear that May’s domestic weakness will leave her unable to make vital concession’s on Britain’s bill.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, will lead European leaders in Brussels on Thursday in seeking to put the best gloss on their refusal to widen the talks, according to diplomatic sources.

“There are ways to say it kindly and encouragingly or less kindly and less encouraging,” said a senior EU diplomat.

The member states are aware that May needs to come out of the summit with her dignity intact if she is to get her cabinet and party to accept concessions on the divorce bill, estimates of which vary from about €60bn to €100bn.

A diplomat said they feared that it was “50-50”, whether there would be an agreement at the next key European council summit in December that sufficient progress had been made in the Brexit talks, amid some concern in Brussels about the stability of May’s premiership.

May asked to take the floor at Thursday’s European council summit dinner, where she will emphasise concessions made during her Florence speech. This includes the €20bn pledge, to ensure no member state loses out in the years immediately after the UK exits.

She will call for both negotiating teams to show greater ambition in the coming weeks. However, she is not likely to make any additional offer.

“The PM will reiterate her commitment to a successful Europe with the UK as a strong and committed partner. She will urge fellow leaders to focus on the shared opportunities and challenges ahead and encourage them to move the conversation on to focus on the future partnership and implementation period so that they are ready to engage in that discussion as soon as possible,” said a Downing Street source said.

It is unlikely that May will receive an immediate response from the leaders around the table, who are determined to maintain the position that the Brexit talks must go through Michael Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator.

Draft conclusions, insisting that there has been insufficient progress, in particular on financial settlement, are also unlikely to be changed by the leaders.

The member states believe, however, that the instability of the British government makes it vital for them to soften the blow for the prime minister, who will need to take the political risk of further major concessions on the financial settlement in the weeks to come if she is to unlock what Barnier described as a deadlock in the talks.

On Wednesday it emerged that Downing Street had once again, been forced to delay bringing the EU withdrawal bill back to the House of Commons, as it struggles to respond to hostile amendments, which are said to have support among Tory MPs, to potentially inflict a defeat on the government.

“Economic growth is behind that of the eurozone. We want a strong partner in the talks. It is not in our interests for the political situation to get more difficult. We need stable leadership so we can have clear statements in the negotiations. And someone who can convince the political sphere as well as the public,” said Aleš Chmelař, the Czech state secretary for European affairs.

A Finnish state secretary, Samuli Virtanen, admitted this week that May’s position was “one of the things that makes this [Brexit] process more difficult because it seems at the moment the EU27 is more unanimous than UK one”.

Sources confirmed that they feared the dynamic of any Conservative leadership battle would lead to a push for a harder line on Brexit, and a new Tory prime minister would pocket any concessions and then demand more.

Phil Hogan, the Irish commissioner for agriculture at the EU, warned on Wednesday of the malign influence of the Brexiters within the Conservative party.

“What becomes more obvious day-by-day is that the Brexiteers are hooked on brinkmanship – and have been since the beginning. Unfortunately, their only approach is the tough-guy approach. The hardliners cannot get out of their head the idea that if they bully their way towards the wire, the ‘Union’s nerve will crack’,” he said.

“I fear that in the UK debate, common sense left the building a long time ago. Unfortunately, facts and details are derided by the Brexiteers.”

The comments came as four Tory former cabinet ministers – Lord Lawson, Owen Paterson, John Redwood and Peter Lilley – called on May to walk away from the talks with no deal if the EU continues to refuse to discuss trade.

In a letter organised by the Leave Means Leave campaign, they said the UK should “concentrate our resources on resolving administrative issues” before leaving with no deal in March 2019.

A summit on 14 December is now the deadline when EU leaders will judge whether the UK has made sufficient progress on the divorce issues that will allow talks to progress to trade.

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