Prime minister and Brexit secretary to meet Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier in attempt to break stalemate.
Theresa May and David Davis will make a surprise visit to Brussels for a private dinner with the European commission chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the EU’s top Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, in a diplomacy blitz before a crucial summit this week.
May and Davis will visit Juncker and Barnier in the Belgian capital on Monday evening, where they are expected to make the case for EU leaders to agree to move on negotiations, to pave the way for discussions of Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
Though Downing Street insisted the dinner had long been in May’s diary, EU sources suggested it may have been more last-minute, but were not able to provide confirmation.
The EU, led by Germany and France, has sought to harden its position towards the prospect of trade talks beginning before Christmas. The UK has been unable to break the EU wall of unity that insists the talks about future relations cannot start until talks on the terms of departure are settled.
A European commission source said Juncker would have a working dinner with the prime minister, along with Davis and Barnier, on Monday to “discuss European and geopolitical issues of common interest and prepare” for the European council summit starting on Thursday. They would also discuss the long-term agenda for the G7 and G20.
Monday will be the first time May and Juncker have dined since the pair’s catastrophic meeting in April. Juncker is reported to have said May was “deluded” about the progress of Brexit, and the prime minister in turn accused Brussels of making deliberately timed attacks to interfere with the UK general election.
May is said to be in the midst of a whirlwind round of “telephone diplomacy” with EU leaders before the summit, starting with a conversation with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Sunday.
Documents leaked last week suggested that European leaders, on the bidding of the European council president, Donald Tusk, would present an agreed position on a transition period and a trade deal in December, should the UK make further concessions.
That promise to the UK was expected to be made at the European council summit this week. However, at a meeting of key diplomats on Friday evening, EU member states discussed weakening the language in the draft statement about their intentions in December, to give themselves greater flexibility in how they respond when they assess the rate of progress.
Multiple EU sources said the member states were concerned that they might be boxing themselves in, and that they should avoid promising any guidelines on how the EU foresees a trade deal and transition period working. “How detailed do we want to be about what we will do in December?” one said. “Some feel that maybe we should be more general.”
The EU is both unsure about the reliability of the UK as a negotiating partner, during a time when May’s position in Downing Street is in doubt, and wary of looking too eager for trade talks, when major concessions in the financial settlement are still being sought. “We can’t control what happens in the UK,” said one EU diplomat. “We can only control what we do here.”
Other UK cabinet ministers have also been wooing EU leaders before the summit. The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, met eight eastern European foreign ministers at Chevening on Sunday in an attempt to break the Brexit deadlock, the first time since the negotiations started that the Foreign Office has gathered such a collection of allies in one place.
In the phone call with Merkel, May’s spokesman said she stressed the importance of progress in the negotiations, in a week when her Conservative backbenchers have been pushing her to start making detailed preparations for a no-deal scenario.
The prime minister is expected to make more calls to other EU leaders in the coming days but a No 10 source made it clear May was not planning on threatening to withdraw from talks, despite some of the pressure from more hardline Eurosceptics.
On Sunday, the former Brexit minister David Jones said Britain should be prepared to suspend negotiations at this week’s European council meeting until the EU was prepared to negotiate further on the financial settlement and begin talks on future trade terms.
“Until such time as you talk to us we will assume you are not really serious and we will of course have to prepare for life outside the EU in which we will be trading with you on World Trade Organization terms,” Jones told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend.
Such a strategy is likely to meet fierce opposition from MPs on both sides of the house who oppose a hard Brexit. On Sunday the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said his party was talking to Tory MPs to block any prospect of a no-deal Brexit.
However, his comments sparked concern from Labour and Conservative backbenchers who believe Tory MPs are not likely to be won over to support the amendment if it can be construed as being orchestrated by McDonnell or the Labour frontbench.
McDonnell’s comments came as a cross-party group of MPs, including several former Conservative ministers, revealed plans that would give parliament the ability to veto a “bad deal” or “no deal” outcome, using amendments to the forthcoming EU withdrawal bill.
The shadow chancellor said Labour was not prepared to consider the prospect of leaving the EU without a negotiated settlement. “I’m not willing to countenance that. I don’t think there is a majority in parliament for no deal,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“I think there are enough sensible people in the House of Commons to say: ‘This cannot happen – we cannot damage our country in this way.’”
Asked if Labour would work with Conservative MPs who were also concerned about leaving with no deal, McDonnell said: “There are discussions going right the way across the house.”
One Labour MP called the comments “totally counterproductive” to cross-party collaboration between MPs from both sides lobbying for a soft Brexit. “The Tories don’t want to do anything perceived to help Corbyn; this kind of chat puts them off challenging the ministerial frontbench,” the source said.
On Monday, leading Conservative MPs from both sides of the Brexit divide played down the likelihood of a no-deal scenario.
Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, who is among the cross-party group of MPs seeking to give parliament the power to veto any no-deal departure, said very few people were actively seeking this.
“I do think we’ve got to make it clear, only a handful of hard rightwing Eurosceptics really think no deal is desirable,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“A majority will, I think, wish to look in the round at whatever this crisis scenario is that has arisen at the time.”
Clarke said the aim of the proposed amendments to the EU withdrawal bill was not to reverse Brexit: “I’ve accepted that the vast majority of parliamentarians think they’re bound by this referendum and therefore we’re going to leave.”
The leading Conservative Eurosceptic MP John Redwood also said he did not expect a no-deal scenario, but insisted the UK could “do just fine” if that happened.
Redwood told the Today programme the government must prepare for the possibility of there being no deal.
“But I suspect, at the 11th hour, the EU will want a free trade deal with us, because they won’t want tariffs on all their exports to us. But if we look as if we’re weak it’s going to delay getting any sensible offer out of them.”
Redwood stressed he would prefer a deal to happen. “Of course, I think that if we had tariff-free trade with no new barriers that would be better than if the EU insist on putting some tariffs and barriers in the way.
“The reason I’m fairly relaxed about them doing that is there are limits to how much damage they can do because we’re both members of the World Trade Organization and we know we can trade perfectly successfully on world trade terms, because that’s what we do at the moment with the whole of the rest of the world.”