British and European business leaders are to demand an urgent breakthrough on Brexit from Theresa May in order to salvage a transition deal from the stalled negotiations in Brussels.
The CBI and counterparts from France, Germany and Italy will meet the prime minister at Downing Street on Monday to warn that taking much longer to negotiate a transition agreement could render it useless because companies will soon be forced to assume the worst about the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU.
The employers alliance behind the initiative, BusinessEurope, has expressed concern at the slow place of the Brexit talks.
“BusinessEurope urges both sides to make additional efforts and commit to reach a withdrawal agreement as early as possible in order to address the transition and future relations,” the director general, Markus Beyrer, said.
One business leader briefed on Monday’s talks said: “If we don’t get a transition deal agreed fairly soon, it’s not going to be very useful.”
Talks in Brussels remain deadlocked, with EU leaders demanding that Britain agree to the principle of a large financial settlement before it discusses future arrangements, and the UK insisting both be dealt with together.
Despite the commercial concerns, British ministers have intensified their brinkmanship by underlining the government’s intention to leave with or without a deal.
The government announced on Thursday night that it would table an amendment to its own EU withdrawal bill to include a reference to a fixed departure point of 11pm GMT (midnight in Brussels) on 29 March 2019.
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, said the amendment made it “crystal clear” that the UK intended to leave the EU on a specific date. “We’ve listened to members of the public and parliament and have made this change to remove any confusion or concern about what ‘exit day’ means,” he said.
It appears to be a move by May to reassert her authority and deter Conservative rebels from opposing the bill as it passes through parliament over the next month.
Writing in the Telegraph, the prime minister said: “We will not tolerate attempts from any quarter to use the process of amendments to this bill as a mechanism to try to block the democratic wishes of the British people by attempting to slow down or stop our departure from the European Union ... We are leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019.”
The government faces a slew of hostile amendments to the bill from MPs across the House of Commons but has so far only agreed to the symbolic change of writing the date of departure on a front page that had previously left the date open.
“This important step demonstrates our pragmatic approach to this vital piece of legislation,” Davis said. “Where MPs can improve the bill, whatever their party, we will work with them. We look forward to further debate in the House of Commons when committee stage begins next week.”
Talks resumed in Brussels on Thursday without Davis or the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, though the pair are expected to host a joint press conference on Friday.
Instead, Barnier gave a speech in Italy warning Britain against following a US-led race to the bottom. “When I hear the US secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, call in London for the British to diverge with Europe to better converge towards others; towards less regulation – environmental, sanitary, food, probably also financial, fiscal and social – I’m wondering,” Barnier said. “The United Kingdom has chosen to leave the European Union. Will it also want to move away from the European model? That’s another question.”
EU sources said Britain had less than a month to make a concession on the financial settlement in order to guarantee the launch of trade talks in December.
Senior officials in Brussels say talks have stalled since Theresa May’s Florence speech, and that the EU will find it difficult to agree to trade talks at a December summit unless May quickly offers more on the settlement.
An internal EU document seen by the Guardian suggests the talks over the border on Ireland remain in limbo with the bloc’s negotiators insisting a hard border can only be avoided by Northern Ireland effectively staying in the single market and customs union.
The document says it is “essential for the UK to commit to ensuring that a hard border on the island of Ireland is avoided, including by ensuring no emergence of regulatory divergence from those rules of the same internal market and the customs union ... necessary for meaningful north-south cooperation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the Good Friday agreement”.
The Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshire, ruled out such a move last week insisting that the integrity of the UK’s internal market would not be put in jeopardy.
On Friday, the British architect of the Brexit process will argue that ministers are wrong to view it as irreversible.
Lord Kerr, who was secretary general of the article 50 drafting committee, will claim there are ways to resist the timetable brinksmanship by suspending the process.
“We still have all the rights of a member state, including the right to change our minds,” the former Foreign Office permanent secretary will say in a speech. “We are not required to withdraw just because Mrs May sent her letter.”
Kerr will tell an event hosted by the Open Britain campaign: “Mrs May’s letter was only a notification of the UK’s ‘intention’ to withdraw. Intentions can change.” He points to statements from European legal experts and leaders, including Emmanuel Macron, Donald Tusk and Antonio Tajani, to prove that the door is open for the UK to change its mind on Brexit, despite the fact that the Russian and US presidents would be disappointed if that happened.
There are signs that the Trump administration is growing increasingly concerned by the slow progress on Brexit.
Earlier this week, Ross is understood to have sympathised with concerns from US multinationals based in London about the lack of clarity over the process.
“We are concerned about the potential impact of Brexit on US interests,” a senior administration source confirmed on Thursday. “Expressing concerns is something you will hear more of in the coming days because the hour is late.”
The source, however, laid the blame more at the door of European negotiators: “We are not concerned about a lack of urgency on the UK’s part, but in the EU there is a view that both in using time as a negotiating tactic and in creating a demonstration effect … a non-urgent approach is not all bad. The US role is to say, ‘no this is urgent’.”
Commenting on Monday’s meeting with BusinessEurope, Downing Street said: “Mrs May will reiterate the UK’s commitment to securing an implementation period of around two years once Britain leaves the EU in March 2019. She will ask the business experts from organisations including the CBI and BusinessEurope to share their input on how the UK and EU can continue to thrive side by side in industry and economic development.”