Theresa May pleaded with EU leaders over dinner in Brussels to help her strike a Brexit deal that she can defend to voters back home, admitting talks had got off to a bad start over the summer.
The prime minister made the appeal over dinner with 27 other EU leaders but did not offer any fresh financial concessions to help break the deadlock in talks, which have been stuck on the issue of Britain’s divorce bill for months.
Speaking on Thursday night, the prime minister said both sides needed an “outcome that we can stand behind and defend to our people”, hinting at the political difficulty she would have in selling a deal that involves handing over a large sum to the EU.
May’s promise to honour the UK’s financial commitments amounts to about €20bn (£18bn) but she has not come up with a specific figure and EU negotiators believe Britain’s liabilities are at least €60bn.
Arriving at the summit in Brussels, EU leaders stood firm on the idea that trade talks could only begin once the UK offered more detail on the Brexit bill but some continental leaders appeared to offer hope that the impasse over money could be broken in the coming weeks.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, put her stamp on the established EU position when she said Brexit negotiations could move on to trade by December. “From where we are now, [progress] is not sufficient enough to enter the second phase, but it is encouraging to move on with the work so that we can reach the second phase in December,” she said.
The upbeat tone was echoed by Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, who said: “We were friends, we are friends and we still will be friends; I am sure we will find an agreement.” He noted the change in tone between May’s speeches, including her latest overture to EU citizens living in the UK. “Times change and even Theresa May’s Facebook post went in the right direction.”
But there was a less positive analysis from the Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, who said May had “not yet” come up with a good proposal. In typically caustic remarks, she said: “Theresa May needs to persuade herself and her government to be more forthcoming and realistic.”
The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said he had asked May last week to offer more detail on the Brexit bill. “Theresa May has to come up with more clarity on what she meant with other commitments in her Florence speech. I phoned her last week and tried to encourage her to do that and so far she hasn’t,” he said.
In her address over dinner, May avoided putting a number on how much the UK was willing to pay to Brussels, stressing that she had already promised to honour the UK’s financial obligations, including paying into the EU budget until 2021.
She claimed to have made the first concessions and called on the EU to do the same, saying she made her Florence speech after she “recognised the difficulty the process was in”.
“I took stock, listened to what people in UK were saying and what my friends and partners in Europe were saying and I made a step forwards,” she said.
Arguing the EU leaders must make the next move when they meet without her on Friday, she said their “clear and urgent imperative must be that the dynamic you create enables us to move forward again”. The aim should be moving on to talk about a future relationship between the EU and Britain that “sets rights and obligations in a new and different balance”.
Although May made no fresh offers, the tone of her address to EU leaders was intended to be conciliatory. She made no mention of the threat of leaving with no deal, which both sides acknowledged was a growing possibility after the fifth round of talks made little progress.
The prime minister spoke for about five minutes during coffee at the end of a meal that had been focused on EU foreign policy challenges, including Iran, North Korea and Turkey. “As expected, nobody reacted,” an EU source told the Guardian.
Speaking to journalists after the dinner, Merkel rejected suggestions the EU negotiating mandate was too strict. “I don’t think so,” she said giving an upbeat assessment of the prospects for a breakthrough. “Both sides have to move. We are going to achieve a good result, there will be a good outcome.”
But she made clear the next stage of Brexit talks would be tougher than the current one, which is focused on divorce issues, including money. Merkel said the second, trade-focused round was “undeniably going to be more complicated than the first stage”. The EU would also find it “more difficult” to formulate a mandate to guide those talks she said.
Rightwing Conservative Eurosceptics, including former cabinet ministers Owen Paterson and John Redwood, are suggesting May should walk away from talks rather than offer more cash, but the prime minister’s spokesman said the focus was on getting on with the talks.
Damian Green, her deputy and first secretary of state, played down calls for a “no deal” Brexit on Thursday: “I think it’s hugely desirable that we get a deal. I think it will be good for Britain. I think it will be good for the other EU countries as well. And because of that fact, I think it is likely that we will get a deal.”
However, Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, issued a much starker warning that the Tories talking up the idea of “no deal” were threatening the economic security of the UK.
“I’m bemused by this argument that if you threaten to jump over a cliff that is a good negotiating tactic,” he said. “Going over the cliff is what will happen in March 2019 if we have not reached an agreement: we are going over that cliff…
“That would be very serious situation, as well. You’ve only got to run through tariffs whether in agricultural, meat products, textiles or cars. I think there would be a crisis of confidence in the economy.”
Despite their focus on getting an agreement, the government is stepping up preparations for the possibility of not achieving one, as it emerged that the Brexit secretary, David Davis, will present cabinet with an assessment of the potential benefits of such a scenario in the coming weeks.
The EU leaders will gather for discussions on Brexit without May on Friday morning, where they are expected to say they will start making preparations for trade talks among themselves in readiness for the possibility of negotiations from December.
So far, the UK’s desire to start negotiating a trade deal has been stymied by the EU’s strict negotiating timetable, which demands “sufficient progress” in settling Britain’s EU divorce first.
Shortly before the summit began, footage showed the British prime minister in earnest conversation with Merkel and the French president, Emmanuel Macron. As he arrived at the summit, he said the EU’s unity was “very strong on Brexit … we are all united behind one negotiator, Michel Barnier”.
The German chancellor also revealed that she had been talking about the Iran nuclear deal with Macron and May, as the three arrived in the summit room deep in conversation.
For the EU, Brexit is a sideshow at the summit, which has a heavy agenda of foreign policy issues.
May acknowledged this as she arrived at the summit, saying: “This council isn’t just about our exit negotiations, it’s also about various other really important issues: defence, security, counter-terrorism, migration, and I am going to be showing how the UK can continue playing a full role.”
The prime minister has repeatedly attempted to go over the heads of the EU’s Brexit negotiators by appealing to European leaders to jump start the talks. This week, No 10 tacitly admitted this gambit had failed when it signed up to a joint Brussels statement that “both sides agreed that [Brexit] would be discussed in the framework agreed between the EU27 and the United Kingdom”.
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