Theresa May heads to Brussels this evening for supper with Jean-Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier and Martin Selmayr. The good news for her is that this meeting can hardly be more disastrous than the last time she dined with this trio. Then, a very unflattering account of the meal appeared in the German press and led to May angrily denouncing attempts to interfere in the UK general election.
On Thursday, the European Council are almost certain to declare that there has been insufficient progress to move on to trade talks. But what May’s frenetic diplomacy is about is pushing for an indication that sufficient progress is likely to have been made by December’s meeting to move on to trade and some public acknowledgement that a transition deal is acceptable to the EU.
On the UK side, they are convinced that the deal on citizen rights is pretty much done but that Barnier doesn’t want to acknowledge this as it would highlight that money is the real stumbling block. (The Irish border issue, as Barnier himself has admitted, isn’t like the other two issues in the first round of the talks). But moving on to trade won’t mean that everything suddenly becomes easy for Mrs May. First of all, the UK government still isn’t clear what kind of trade deal it wants. Second, the EU will drive as hard a bargain as it can on the issue. But Cabinet allies of May believe that if the talks do move on to trade and transition in November, she will find it easier to assert herself domestically.