Theresa May is close to offering a deal on money that would unlock the Brexit negotiations, according to the head of Europe’s centre-right MEPs, who said he had received “positive messages” during a meeting in Downing Street on Wednesday.
Manfred Weber, a German leader of the European People’s party (EPP) who is also a close ally of chancellor Angela Merkel, said he had witnessed a substantial shift in the British approach which might now allow EU leaders to move on to the next stage of negotiations.
“I am one of the more sceptical partners from the European parliament side [about the] Brexit negotiations and ongoing progress but I have to say that after my meetings today my main message is that I am more optimistic that there is progress; that there is the will to see progress,” Weber told reporters after meeting May, David Davis and Amber Rudd for separate talks.
“The message is that the will is there,” he added. “That is the most important thing, because the perspective from a European point of view toward London was that in the last month or two there [was not]. After my meeting I have more certainty about the general direction and that is positive.”
Weber, who says he was invited to London by No 10, declined to explain in detail the substance of Britain’s discussions on the divorce settlement but made clear he had perceived a meaningful shift since the stark warnings last week that the UK had just a fortnight left to move on to the next stage of talks and secure a crucial transition deal to placate British business.
“The positive message is for the prime minister to comment on, I can only share with you my perspective on how I received it,” said Weber. “The critical point for us was Michel Barnier was clear after last week’s negotiations that now we are running out of time for the December conference … and I saw today that there is a willingness to go further, a willingness to conclude a positive outcome.”
The meeting was part of a deliberate strategy by Downing Street to open up direct channels to EU27 politicians rather than relying solely on chief negotiator Michel Barnier, whom they blame for what the government regards as a hardening in Brussels’ approach in recent months.
Davis will travel to Berlin on Thursday to deliver a speech, and has visited a series of other EU capitals including Warsaw and Rome.
No 10 said May and Davis had sought to address several concerns raised by the German MEP, including how the UK intends to guarantee the future legal rights of EU citizens; and how a Brexit implementation period could help to avoid a “cliff-edge”.
“There was extensive discussion of citizens’ rights with both the PM and Weber confirming that the issue was their foremost concern. Weber queried how the rights promised today could be guaranteed in later years. The prime minister and David Davis set out that the UK’s commitments would be enshrined in UK law backed by an international treaty,” a spokesman said.
A senior government source stressed that Weber is “not a negotiator”, and insisted the meeting was about setting out the UK’s ‘strategic aims’ in the Brexit process.
May made clear in her Florence speech earlier this year that she intended to “honour commitments” the UK has made during its membership of the EU. Officials in Brussels have since been engaged in detailed, “without prejudice”, discussions about each side’s interpretation of what that could mean.
But Davis remains wary of tabling any aggregate figure without knowing the outlines of any future trading relationship. The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) also continues to believe that the issue of the border in Northern Ireland cannot be fully settled until more is understood about how the UK and the EU will trade in future – a question the EU27 are determined not to address until phase two of the talks.
However, Weber’s optimistic comments about the Brexit financial settlement chimed with recent arguments by senior Tories such as William Hague, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph on Monday that “if we want Brexit to be a success, we must pay them”.
“The Brexit talks are now quite clearly coming to such a crunch, where the UK has to decide whether a major and unpalatable concession is worth making in order to secure a large number of highly desirable objectives,” wrote Hague. “Anyone who thinks there has ever been a chance of a free trade deal with the EU without doing this has been kidding themselves.”
European leaders increasingly believe that the UK government now recognises that there is a need for an agreement in principle to settle up to €60bn or so, even if the fine detail and payment itself is deferred for later in talks.
“I see the will to talk about the issues,” added Weber. “I don’t want to comment on what [May] told me in the private dialogue but it is clear that there are points on the table, the understanding of what is sufficient progress is in the same line [aligned].”
During his press conference in London on Wednesday, Weber also became the first senior European leader to agree with Brexit secretary David Davis that more talks should be held directly between politicians rather than just through the European Commission led process in Brussels.
“After my talk today it is extremely crucial that we find further and more direct channels of communications,” he said.
The EPP is the largest political grouping in the European parliament and until 2009 included British Conservative MEPs.
Privately European officials are hopeful that progress could now come quite rapidly as the clock ticks down to the December summit. “It’s obvious to me that they want to achieve something in the next few days,” said one.
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