EU leaders aim to let Theresa 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.

European Union 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 because they fear that the prime minister’s domestic weakness will leave her unable to make vital concessions on Britain’s divorce bill.

The 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 one senior EU diplomat.

The member states are acutely aware that the prime minister 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 (£54bn to £90bn). One diplomat said they feared 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 has asked to take the floor at a dinner at the European council summit on Thursday evening where she will emphasise the concessions made in her Florence speech, including the €20bn pledge to ensure no member state loses out in the years immediately after the UK leaves the bloc. 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.

A Downing Street source said: “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.”

May’s address is unlikely to receive an immediate response from the leaders around the table, who are determined to maintain their position that the Brexit talks must go through the the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. Draft conclusions insisting that there has been insufficient progress, in particular on the financial settlement, are also unlikely to be changed by the leaders.

However, the member states believe 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.

It is believed the Dutch government, led by Mark Rutte, has particularly championed a warm welcome for May.

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 hundreds of hostile amendments, which are said to have sufficient support among Tory MPs to potentially inflict a defeat on the government.

Aleš Chmelař, the Czech state secretary for European affairs, told the Guardian the EU needed a strong negotiating partner and that recent signs of economic instability in the UK, which could affect the political situation, were particularly concerning.

“We have been looking at the economic news, that looks quite worrying,” he said. “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.”

In unusually candid remarks on British political uncertainty, 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”.

A London-based EU diplomat said: “It is Germany not France that is taking the toughest line. It is partly they have a more legalistic approach, but they also think British politics is so unstable, concessions at this stage are premature. They think Theresa May’s position is not very strong.”

The sources confirmed 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.

Officials in Berlin and PaOn Wednesday, officials in Berlin and Paris were already seeking to talk up May’s efforts to break the impasse in the negotiations.

A German government source said: “We believe that a whole lot has already happened and, regarding an issue which is of particular importance to us, that of the rights of citizens, we’ve advanced considerably.

“I believe that the big questions about the future relationship between Britain and the European Union are of far more importance than the current dispute about finances.”

A French source said of Emmanuel Macron’s attitude: “We must not give in to a confrontational mindset. We are not in a mood for punishment or presents. Our goal is that the requirements are met before moving to phase two. Keep calm and maintain the mandate. It is in the interest of the British and the 27. We will be a demanding partner, transparent and predictable.”

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.

Between this week’s European council summit and then, the EU member states are set to prepare their vision for a transition period and a mandate for Barnier to talk trade with the UK should sufficient progress on citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the financial settlement be made.

EU’s collective hope and expectation is for a deal in December, but diplomats insisted this need not be the end of the road. “If not, no one will be ready to throw in the towel, but we will be ready to think of another milestone, another threshold of time to move on.”

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