Brexit: EU leaders refuse face-to-face talks with Theresa May in latest rebuff

Prime Minister wants 'a discussion' with her counterparts to try to break the deadlock - will be listened to in silence

Rob Merrick,Jon Stone
Thursday 19 October 2017 09:58 BST
Theresa May will make her pitch to EU leaders over coffee
Theresa May will make her pitch to EU leaders over coffee (PA)

EU heads of government will deliver another rebuff to the Prime Minister today by refusing face-to-face discussions to break the deadlock in the Brexit talks.

Theresa May will try to bypass the stalled negotiating process by appealing directly to her counterparts in the other 27 countries, at a summit dinner in Brussels.

She will hope to engage them “in a discussion” to end the impasse, a senior UK government official said, ahead of the EU leaders’ own Brexit talks in Britain’s absence.

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But The Independent has learned that the EU will stick to its strict rule that negotiations must be carried out only with Michel Barnier – the European Commission’s chosen representative.

The Prime Minister would be invited to raise her offer on Brexit, but there would be no discussion afterwards, a spokesman for the European Council’s presidency said.

Furthermore, the dinner will be short, after the evacuation of the main European Council building – because of problems in the kitchen – forced it to be moved to an older building.

It is likely to be “cold service” only, one Brussels source said, with Ms May's speaking slot limited to the coffee at the end.

The set-up raises the prospect of a repeat of what happened at last October’s summit, when the Prime Minister was given just five minutes to speak – with no debate – at 1am on that occasion.

It comes after Brexit preparations were plunged into further chaos after the key legislation was shelved for up to a month, because of Commons revolts.

The EU Withdrawal Bill is unlikely to go back before MPs until mid-November, after an avalanche of amendments – some signed by Tory backbenchers – threatened the Government with defeat.

The Prime Minister will attempt to change the conversation, by promising the 3.2 million EU citizens in Britain a closer involvement in a “streamlined” process to obtain “settled status” to stay after Brexit.

In an open letter, sent directly to 100,000 citizens who have asked to receive updates, Ms May said an agreement with the EU on their future rights was within “touching distance”.

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And she announced a new “user group” would be set up with officials, to give EU nationals a direct say over how the process works, to ease their “anxiety”.

In a message also posted on the Prime Minister’s Facebook page, she wrote: “With flexibility and creativity on both sides, I am confident that we can conclude discussions on citizens’ rights in the coming weeks.”

However, the official confirmed Ms May did not plan any policy change, after criticism that EU citizens will lose some rights – particularly over family reunions – after Brexit.

And, crucially, there is still no unilateral guarantee of future rights should the withdrawal talks collapse and Britain leaves with “no deal”.

In Brussels, Ms May is not expected to budge on the key dispute of money, refusing to go beyond her offer to pay “subs” of around £9bn a year, if a transition period of “about two years” is agreed.

The EU has demanded the UK also set out the “liabilities” it agrees it must pay, prompting the president of the European Parliament to brand Britain’s offer “peanuts”.

On Friday, the heads of government will confirm that “sufficient progress” has not been made on divorce terms, dashing Ms May’s hopes of moving on to talks about a future trade deal.

Leaked versions of the draft council motion are highly unlikely to be changed, after they were toughened up against Britain’s interests by France and Germany.

The motion does allow for preparatory work on the next phase of talks to begin behind closed doors in Brussels, potentially allowing trade talks to begin in January, if the “sufficient progress” test is passed in December.

Despite that, the Government official set a high bar for a “successful” summit, saying Britain was seeking a clear commitment to “swift progress” on reaching an agreement.

By the time EU leaders deliver their “not yet” verdict, Ms May will be back in London. She was said to have an “incredibly busy diary”.

Before she leaves, the summit will also discuss the migration crisis in the Mediterranean and defence, with Britain pledging to “always stand alongside the EU”.

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