German chancellor Angela Merkel (lleft) with UK prime minister Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron before a round-table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels © AP
Theresa May on Thursday night implored European leaders not to back her into a corner on Brexit, saying there was a “clear and urgent” need to move exit talks to the next phase as her Eurosceptic critics began to mobilise.
The British prime minister told EU leaders that she had taken a big risk by making an opening €20bn financial offer and accepting that a transition deal would be on the EU’s terms, including budget contributions and European Court jurisdiction.
But over dinner on the first night of an EU summit in Brussels, Mrs May warned fellow leaders not to push her too far. The British prime minister, who has been seeking to get a green light this week to start talks on transition, said both sides had to work towards a deal “that we can stand behind and defend to our people”.
Mrs May said: “The clear and urgent imperative must be that the dynamic you create enables us to move forward together.”
British officials said the prime minister was “working against a difficult political backdrop”.
Her comments came as former Conservative party cabinet ministers warned that Britain would leave the EU without a deal and should prepare to trade with the bloc on World Trade Organisation terms.
An early flashpoint with Tory Eurosceptics is expected to come as early as next month, as Mrs May comes under pressure to increase her financial offer to the EU from €20bn to closer to the €60bn suggested by Brussels.
Mrs May’s hopes of a significant breakthrough at this summit are set to be dashed on Wednesday. EU leaders are expected to conclude that there has not been “sufficient progress” on divorce talks to move to the next phase of negotiations.
Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister, said there could be no progress until Britain increased its offer on a financial settlement with the EU. He said he had told Mrs May in a phone call last week: “Listen. We need more clarity, specifically about the bill.”
Dalia Grybauskaitė, the Lithuanian president, said Mrs May’s conciliatory Florence speech last month did not show “flexibility” and was still “not realistic”.
However the leaders of the EU 27 are expected to offer an olive branch to Mrs May by announcing that they will begin internal discussions on a transition deal and future trade agreement in the hope that formal negotiations can begin with Britain in December.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said there were “encouraging” signs of progress, saying she thought it would be possible to “take the work forward and then reach the start of the second phase in December”.
In a sign of solidarity with Mrs May, Ms Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron chatted with the British prime minister for the cameras at the start of the summit. At a European Council in December last year, Mrs May was pictured standing alone while colleagues talked among themselves.
However the German and French leaders’ sympathies for a politician struggling to contain domestic pressures are limited. Diplomats say the two countries will drive a hard bargain over money this autumn before they agree to move Brexit talks forward.
As the UK prime minister arrived in Brussels for the start of the summit, she was reminded of the high stakes for the British economy by Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs.
Mr Blankfein tweeted: “Just left Frankfurt. Great meetings, great weather, really enjoyed it. Good, because I’ll be spending a lot more time there. # Brexit”.