The British government’s attempt to lobby individual EU leaders in the run-up to the recent crunch EU summit, where member states were to judge the progress of the negotiations, actively damaged Theresa May’s hopes of a better outcome, the Guardian has learned.
A secret plan had been drawn up under which the EU leaders would have made the surprise and highly symbolic move of stating in their conclusions on the day of the European council meeting that they would take into account Britain’s positions as they announced their intention to scope out their ideas on a post-Brexit transition period and trading relationship.
The act of the 27 leaders changing the draft conclusions, a copy of which had been widely leaked ahead of the summit and appeared fixed, would have given the prime minister a boost by suggesting that May’s address to them at a working dinner had been effective.
According to one senior diplomatic source with detailed knowledge of the behind-the-scenes discussions, however, the plan was ditched over concerns that the EU would be rewarding May’s “divide and rule” tactics in the days before the summit.
The prime minister had made calls to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. The Brexit secretary, David Davis, had also engaged in an energetic round of bilateral meetings with ministers in the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark.
The EU leaders subsequently agreed in 90 seconds, on the Friday morning of the summit, that sufficient progress had not been made on the three opening issues – citizens rights, the Irish border and the financial settlement – for trade talks to start, as had long been expected.
They also agreed they would discuss their positions internally in the hope that negotiations on a transition and future relationship could be opened with the UK after a summit on 14 December, as the leaked conclusions had suggested. There was no additional mention in the written conclusions that the EU would take the UK’s views into account.
One EU source said: “It was considered but killed because the story would then be ‘the divide and rule tactic worked’. On the [Friday] morning with those stories it was not going to happen, nobody was proposing it and we needed to make this demonstration – agree in 90 seconds.”
In comments at the end of the summit, the European council president, Donald Tusk, did verbally offer Britain reassurance that its ideas would be taken account internal scoping, but in a manner that avoided giving May a major public relations victory.
Any hope of opening direct discussions on trade in October were dashed months ago because of the British government’s refusal to spell out the financial commitments it was willing to honour in its divorce bill. The UK had been lobbying to open direct talks on a transition period, but this was also never on the cards, senior sources said.
EU leaders, including the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, have repeatedly told Britain not to try to go over the head of their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
Juncker said in a speech to the European parliament earlier this month: “For those that think that the UK should just go over Michel Barnier’s head, I remind them that the commission has been appointed by the 27 member states.”
It is understood that an hour-long meeting between the leaders, following the adoption of the European council conclusions on Friday, was not, as has been suggested in some reports, dominated by discussions about how to save May from her domestic critics.
Only one EU leader is thought to have voiced the position that the bloc should not push the prime minister too far for fear of prompting a coup against her at home.
Instead, the 27 leaders discussed how to counter what they believed was British spin that the bloc was unreasonably squeezing the UK for money.
They then discussed how they should present the events to the media, and what could be done to move the talks on to the next stage. One diplomatic source said: “Generally speaking these people are prepared to deal with whoever is the prime minister.”