Few in Whitehall believed that Theresa May’s trip to the EU Council summit this week would result in Britain being given the green light to move onto the second stage of Brexit talks. Instead, it has all been about setting the tone and planting the seeds so that when the EU27 meet again in December, they decide that it is finally time to talk about trade.
So, Theresa May ought to be able to leave Brussels a moderately happy woman today. This morning EU leaders agreed to start internal discussions on their approach to the ‘second phase’ of talks on trade and the transition period. This isn’t a green light – but it is a suggestion a green light could be granted the next time they meet.
At last night’s dinner, the Prime Minister addressed European leaders where she is thought to have said that while she is willing to offer more on the divorce bill – the main sticking point in the negotiations – it has to be something she can sell at home.
Speaking after the dinner, Angela Merkel said ‘both sides need to move’ to break the Brexit deadlock – acknowledging that the ‘ball’ is in the EU’s court as well as the UK’s. Merkel’s suggestion that the EU will have to compromise as well as the UK is a notable change in tone. As for the prospect of a ‘no deal’, the German Chancellor said she has ‘absolutely no doubts’ about a deal as there is ‘zero indication’ that Britain will leave the EU without one.
Given that this is Brussels, there’s reason to treat her comments with some scepticism. What one EU leader – no matter how influential – thinks needs to be in chime with all of their fellow leaders as well as the European Commission. However, at a time when May is under pressure from some campaigners to abandon the talks and prepare for ‘no deal’, her allies within the EU have thrown May a lifeline.