British Prime Minister Theresa May will travel to Brussels on Monday for a meeting over dinner with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker after a deadlock in Brexit talks. The impasse may dash her hopes for a summit this week to launch negotiations on future trade ties.
May’s office said the meeting was long-planned, even though a dinner was not on Juncker’s agenda published on Friday. However, European Union officials said it had also not been on the schedule for Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who will be at the dinner along with his British counterpart, David Davis.
After talks with Davis last week, Barnier said negotiations hit a roadblock, notably over London’s refusal to detail what it was offering to pay Brussels. This followed an attempt by May last month to revive talks by promising Britain would honour its EU commitments.
As time ticks down to UK’s withdrawal from the European Union in March 2019, concern is rising across Europe that the process may collapse. “We made a very good offer … Let’s get these negotiations going and stop letting the grass grow under our feet,” Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said at an EU meeting in Luxembourg.
But EU leaders said May had been too vague in her financial settlement offer – something many diplomats believe is due to a fear that even a very rough figure may spark a backlash from hardline Brexit supporters such as Johnson.
In response to suggestions from Barnier, EU governments have agreed, however, that the summit on Thursday and Friday should give him a green light to explore a possible post-Brexit transition period – although only in internal discussions within the EU, and not with the British negotiators themselves.
Even that has run into resistance from Germany and France. They insisted that further progress in the British divorce package was required to be made to May, who is struggling to unite her own government behind her plan to reach a deal on a two-year transition during which Britain will stay in the single market and customs union.
A statement by the 27 other EU states, planned for Friday, is being redrafted to harden the conditions under which Barnier will be allowed to explore the options for the transition. Aside from the money, where Juncker has said Britain might owe something like $70 billion, the EU said there had not been “sufficient progress” on two other critical divorce issues – the rights of expatriate citizens and how to avoid a new EU-UK border disrupting a fragile peace in Northern Ireland.
Without any decision on the two issues, the Union said there could be no opening of talks on what would happen after March 29, 2019. The leaders expect to launch the second phase of talks after their next summit in December.
With time running short, and hardline pro-Brexit ministers urging May to be prepared to walk out without reaching a deal to limit the legal uncertainties of withdrawal, continental governments have stepped up planning for a collapse in talks.
Business leaders on both sides of the English Channel have said without clarity by the new year, they would increasingly have to take investment decisions to reflect uncertainty over British access to EU markets.