Theresa May has personally urged Angela Merkel to end the Brexit stand-off at this week’s EU summit in Brussels after Berlin and Paris led moves to toughen the EU’s negotiating line in the next phase of talks.
France and Germany have pushed for changes to a draft paper prepared for Thursday’s summit to avoid giving the impression that the EU will agree guidelines on a transition period as soon as “sufficient progress” has been made in addressing divorce issues such as the exit bill, according to top diplomats.
The British prime minister called her German counterpart on Sunday in an attempt to break the impasse ahead of the high-profile summit, with UK officials arguing that negotiations could not progress unless they move beyond the current talks on a divorce settlement.
Meanwhile, Mrs May will step up her diplomatic push for progress on Monday when she flies to Brussels for talks over dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, and Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator.
Mrs May will be accompanied by David Davis, Brexit secretary, for the dinner, which will also be attended by Oliver Robbins, the prime minister’s personal negotiator, and Martin Selmayr, Mr Juncker’s chief of staff and a man suspected in Number 10 of being hostile to Britain.
Downing Street said the talks had been “in the diary for the while” and were part of pre-summit preparations. Mr Barnier has privately indicated that he would like a broader mandate to discuss transition terms, while Germany and France have opposed such a move.
The government is anxious to open the next stage of talks amid rising concerns that UK-based businesses could begin moving assets and employees to the EU if the certainty of a two-year transition is not agreed by the end of the year.
“We’ve almost run out of things to talk about,” admitted a colleague of Mrs May. “It comes down to money: by discussing the transition deal at the same time, you create a broader framework for talking about the money.”
France and Germany were concerned that the original wording of the draft summit statement could inflate UK hopes about what might be achieved in December when EU leaders next consider whether enough progress has been made in divorce talks to begin negotiations on the transition and future relationship.
Mrs May’s team fear that Paris and Berlin are “misreading” the political situation in Britain and their attempts to wring more concessions out of Britain now could make a final deal much harder to agree.
There are fears in British government circles that if the EU side refuses to give more ground at this week’s summit, Tory Eurosceptic hardliners will seize on the impasse as evidence that Britain should stop making concessions.
However, there is also a view in Berlin that British prime ministers have a history of claiming they are under threat from Eurosceptic hardliners in order to win concessions.
At an ambassadors’ meeting in Brussels on Friday, both Germany and France called for changes to language in the draft summit statement, which they felt suggested that EU leaders would agree guidelines on “possible transitional arrangements” and on the “framework for the future relationship” as soon as they determine that “sufficient progress” has been made in divorce talks.
Brussels’ diplomats emphasised that no one was seeking to challenge the central concession offered to Britain in the draft text, which was that EU governments, minus the UK, would begin “internal preparatory discussions” on the transition and future relationship.
There was “unity of member states to start preparatory work”, according to one person briefed on the talks.
The moves “suggest member states don’t want to assume there will be sufficient progress by December, but do want to encourage the Brits and send a positive signal to May”, said Mujtaba Rahman, head of Europe for the Eurasia Group risk consultancy. “It’s a delicate balance to strike and shows how much mistrust there now is between the two sides.”
Downing Street said that Mrs May’s talks with Ms Merkel had focused on Iran, but added: “They looked ahead to next week’s council, agreeing on the importance of continued constructive progress in the UK’s exit negotiations.”
Britain also believes that it has the backing of allies including Spain, Nordic member states, the Netherlands and some central European countries in pushing for faster progress in the Brexit talks.