Theresa May to appeal to Macron over Brexit transition period

Daniel Boffeyin Brussels, Jennifer Rankin in Luxembourg and Jessica Elgot in London
Emmanuel Macron receives Theresa May at the Élysée Palace earlier this year. Photograph: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Theresa May is to appeal to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to widen the Brexit negotiations to discuss a transition period, in the latest move during a high-stakes flurry of diplomacy.

May is due to phone the Élysée Palace on Monday afternoon, it is understood, as the prime minister seeks to convince European leaders that talks on a transition phase should be approved at a European council summit on Friday. She will also call the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, before departing for Brussels for an early dinner with the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

Downing Street’s efforts are unlikely to be rewarded, however, unless May is willing to offer concrete guidance on how many of the UK’s financial commitments to the EU budget she is prepared to honour.

May has already sought to convince the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, of the need for talks on a transition phase during a call on Sunday, without any success, it is understood.

The EU leaders have concluded that insufficient progress has been made in the first phase of talks to open negotiations on the future trading relationship or discuss a transition period, a judgment they will formally deliver at the summit later this week.

The mood before the dinner with Juncker – to which the commission president’s chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, and May’s Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins, have also been invited – was struck earlier on Monday when the commission president gave a hint of his feelings about the forthcoming event. “I’m going to see Mrs May tonight. And, yes, you will have a postmortem report,” he told reporters.

It is understood that May will spend only 90 minutes in Brussels before returning to London. The last meal between the two leaders, in Downing Street, was heavily leaked to the newspapers, with Juncker allegedly describing the prime minister as “deluded”.

A senior EU source all but dismissed the prime minister’s hopes of pushing transition talks, claiming that European leaders had overruled Barnier when he suggested opening talks on a transition phase, and were in no mood to offer May any succour. “The problem is not in the commission so you will not find the solution in the commission,” he said.

The source said European capitals were insistent that phase one of the negotiations, taking in citizens rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border, needed to be settled first.

“What the British have in mind is some sort of stage one and a half. Not sufficient progress but you can start talks on negotiations on the transition,” the source said. “That is not going to happen because I think in the capitals they are very much in touch with this idea that we have a staged approached. We were very specific when it came to the guidelines what we meant by the first phase.”

The source said May was doing her best to get the best possible outcome from the EU27 meeting on Friday. The best the UK could hope for, however, was for the group to offer to scope out among themselves how a transition period would work, in the hope that Britain would have delivered concrete proposals on the financial settlement by the next European council summit in December.

In her speech in Florence, May announced that the UK would “honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership”, without spelling out what those commitments were.

“Until the speech in Florence, the feeling in the capitals was that it was going nowhere and the no-deal scenario was the most likely one’, the source acknowledged. “Since Florence, Theresa May did manage to change this assumption. The message from Florence was: ‘I mean business, the UK is in the negotiating business,’ which was not so clear before.”

The source added, however, that without additional firm commitments on the financial settlement, there would be limited reward for May’s efforts.

“I have to admit they [the British] are not happy with the conclusions,” the EU official said. “They would like to go further but that will be the landing zone with the current input.”

A leaked statement drafted by the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, for agreement by leaders, had suggested last week that the EU would promise to scope between themselves how a transition phase would work now and give Barnier a mandate to talk trade in December, if sufficient progress was made by then.

France and Germany were reluctant even to go that far, however, arguing that while talking between themselves about a transition period was acceptable, the EU should not bind its hands in terms of what it gives to Britain should sufficient progress be made by Christmas.

It is understood, however, that Tusk has persuaded Macron and Merkel during phone calls in recent days to stick to his original plan, which will be agreed by EU ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday and announced by the leaders on Friday.

“If we end with the conclusions that Tusk proposed it will be a very nice reward and a fair one – that’s where we are,” the source said. “That is the only scenario I can see.”

The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who hosted senior European politicians from eight member states at his grace and favour country house, Chevening on Sunday, claimed it was in the EU’s interests to move the negotiations on.

Before a meeting for EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, Johnson told reporters: “We think in the UK that it’s time to get on with these negotiations, it is ready for the great ship to go down the slipway and on to the open sea and for us to start some serious conversations about the future and the new relationship, the deep and special partnership we hope to construct.

“I think that will work very much in the interests of both sides. People say to me: ‘Look we want to reassure the 3.2 million EU nationals in the UK and one-and-a-bit million UK nationals in the EU’ and so do we. We have made a very good offer. We have made a very fair ... We think it is a reasonable point of view that we are outlining.

“Let’s give them that reassurance, let’s give a tiger in the tank, lets get these conversations going and stop letting the grass grow under our feet. So we hope our partners will take that message and begin some serious negotiations.”

May is expected to leave the EU council summit on Friday morning, before talks on the progress of the Brexit negotiations get under way between the EU27. Her early departure makes it all the more crucial that she is able to speak to as many EU leaders as possible before the summit.

Asked if May had sought assurances that the contents of the dinner would remain private, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “The prime minister has had a number of constructive conversations with Jean-Claude Juncker. We expect this to be a constructive dinner.”

He said the dinner was part of a “wider programme of engagement” with EU leaders. “They will be talking about a range of issues of importance to the EU, ahead of the council. Over the course of the past month or more there has been engagement with the prime minister and European leaders. You can expect her to have conversations with other European leaders today and going forward.”

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