May’s fellow leaders had been set to consider how best to tackle Britain’s departure from the 28-member bloc over a three-course dinner to which the prime minister had not been invited.
But after talks about a series of other pressing issues, including the refugee crisis and ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine, dragged on late into the night, the dinner was cancelled in favour of a brief discussion.
May cancelled a planned press conference, instead making a few prepared remarks on camera about the Syrian crisis, before being whisked away to fly back to London.
The prime minister refused to be drawn on her hopes for a Brexit deal, and left her fellow leaders behind to rubber-stamp a series of technical decisions about how the Brexit negotiations will be conducted.
With the EU summit running more than three hours late after lengthy debates on migration, May excused herself to allow her fellow leaders to move on to Brexit without her. “I’d better leave,” she reportedly said. “It was very nice, sympa,” said an EU source.
The EU’s remaining 27 leaders wrapped up their Brexit discussions in around 20 minutes. Donald Tusk, president of the European council, described it as a “short informal meeting” to finalise the EU’s Brexit processes.
Rather than Brexit, the EU devoted far more time to dealing with the consequences of the Dutch referendum, where voters rejected a landmark association agreement with Ukraine. “Welcome to the club of lost referendums,” one unnamed EU leader joked to the rest of the group.
The brevity of their conversation on Brexit underlined the fact that it is not currently top of the agenda for other EU member-states and the limited extent to which they can discuss the substance of the issues at stake before article 50, the formal divorce process, begins.
Earlier, the prime minister was captured in an awkward video, apparently unable to find an ally to talk to, as other EU leaders greeted each other warmly.
On arrival in Brussels, May had welcomed the fact that other EU member-states would discuss Brexit without her, saying: “It is right that other leaders prepare for those negotiations as we have been preparing.
“We will be leaving the EU, we want that to be as smooth and orderly a process as possible, it’s not only in our interests but in the interests of the rest of Europe as well.”
Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, revealed that before leaving the summit, May had briefly touched on some of the issues surrounding Brexit. “She would like to have the question of UK citizens living in Europe and European citizens living in the UK dealt with in the early part of discussions that take place,” he said.
May also updated other EU leaders on the government’s supreme court appeal on parliament’s role in Brexit, a judgment which is expected to be issued in January.
May’s spokeswoman refused to confirm renewed reports that the EU’s working expectation is for the UK to be hit with a bill of up to £50bn after Brexit for ongoing liabilities, including the cost of EU pensions. “Discussions on how UK taxpayers’ money is spent will be decisions for the UK to take moving forward,” she said. She stressed that Britain would honour its obligations; but added, “there’s a whole range of complex issues that need to be resolved in the negotiations.”
Tomas Prouza, Czech Republic’s Europe minister, had earlier told Sky News: “I understand why the Eurosceptics call it an exit fee. But this is agreeing the bills that the UK has already agreed to pay.
“We’re talking about payments to the existing budget that the UK already voted for, pensions of British citizens working at the EU. This is only things the UK has already committed itself to paying.”
At their brief discussion, EU leaders reaffirmed their now familiar red lines: no negotiations until notification of article 50, and no compromise on the idea that single market membership means accepting free movement of people.
Since these principles were drawn up in the immediate aftermath of the referendum in late June, the EU has not budged.
“The heads of state or government of 27 member states reconfirmed their statement of 29 June 2016,” stated a communique released late on Thursday. “They reiterated that they stand ready to start negotiations with the UK as soon as the UK has notified under article 50.”
Michel Barnier was formally appointed as lead Brexit negotiator at the meeting – an outcome never really in doubt, as he has access to scores of technical staff at the European commission.
But leaders stressed they, not the European parliament, are in charge of talks with the British. The European council “will remain permanently seized” on Brexit, the draft states, and will set up a working group of technical experts to follow the negotiations.
Earlier in the day the outgoing president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, had called for MEPs to be given a bigger role in negotiations. As a concession, MEPs will now be invited to preparatory meetings with EU diplomats, which Tusk described as “a very constructive method of our co-operation”. But he was clear EU leaders, with the European commission, would be in charge.
The discussions on Thursday night confirmed the European parliament’s status as the junior player: MEPs will be invited to join diplomats from the 27 EU member states merely “for an exchange of views” at the start of crucial Brexit preparatory meetings. The parliament’s smaller role means that any promises by MEPs on special status for British citizens should be taken with a pinch of salt.
MEPs reacted furiously after learning they would not have a central role in the EU Brexit process. Schulz said, “if we are not adequately involved, we may not be able to give our assent” – meaning “the UK would face the hardest Brexit possible”.
Schulz was speaking at his last EU summit as MEP leader, as he prepares to enter German domestic politics. The EU treaties state that the European parliament must give its consent to Britain’s EU exit deal, but are silent on any negotiating role for MEPs.
May had earlier brushed off questions about whether it could take as long as a decade for Britain to conclude a fresh trade deal with the EU after leaving.
Sir Ivan Rogers, May’s top diplomat in Brussels, who conducted David Cameron’s EU renegotiation before the referendum, had warned the government that a deal will not be finalised until the early to mid-2020s, according to the BBC. That deal could still be rejected by any of the 27 national parliaments during the ratification process.
That timing would reflect the “decade of uncertainty” Cameron’s government warned about during the referendum campaign – though it is understood Rogers was reporting back conversations he had with European politicians, rather than giving his own assessment.
“It is wrong to suggest this is advice from our ambassador to the EU,” a No 10 spokesman said. “Like all ambassadors, part of his role is to report the views of others.”
Speaking later in the House of Commons, Mark Garnier, a trade minister, said Rogers had been reporting the views of “interlocutors”. He admitted it was incredibly difficult to know how long it would take to complete a trade deal but pointed out that one between the US and Jordan had taken just four months.
British government officials have told ministers it could take a decade to extricate the UK from EU law, with the domestic legislative agenda likely to be dominated by unwinding EU membership for years to come.
But the reports come after the Brexit secretary, David Davis, told a select committee hearing that “everything is negotiable” within a year and a half of the formal article 50 notification in March. The deal would then take about six months to be agreed by European leaders, the European parliament and the British parliament.
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