UK prime minister Theresa May arrives for a bilateral meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk during the Brussels summit © AFP
Theresa May called an election in June with the aim of securing a “strong mandate” to negotiate Brexit. Instead, she left a Brussels summit on Friday with her EU counterparts agonising how to deal with a British prime minister defined by her political weakness.
As Mrs May flew back to London, the other 27 EU prime ministers and presidents questioned whether the British prime minister could survive if they pushed her too far this autumn in their search for new Brexit concessions.
In public Mrs May was urged to make a “firm and concrete commitment” to increase her initial €20bn Brexit divorce offer, with French president Emmanuel Macron suggesting the final bill should be more than €40bn.
“We need to have a complete approach to [the UK’s] financial commitments and in that regards we haven’t done half the journey,” he said at the summit’s end.
But the question discussed during an hour-long summit discussion in Brussels’ Justus Lipsius building was whether pushing the demands could topple Mrs May and leave the EU facing a Eurosceptic hardliner across the table in Brexit talks.
Some European diplomats suggest it might be easier to deal with a committed pro-Leave Tory prime minister, but that is a minority view. “She’s our best hope of a negotiated outcome and a smooth transition,” said an adviser to one prime minister.
Mrs May’s weakness is now a critical factor as Brexit enters its most crucial phase.
On one level the EU is exploiting Mrs May’s precarious position, with France and Germany dashing her hopes of an early breakthrough in talks in the hope they can wring more money from Britain during the autumn.
The suggestion among leaders is that Mrs May should at least be forced to accept in principle Britain’s obligation to outstanding commitments on exit — known as reste a liquider — which could amount to €30bn more than the €20bn Britain has already put on the table.
But the demands are tempered by a fear, reinforced by the British newspapers read assiduously in European capitals, that Mrs May’s position as a voice of moderation — who favours an EU trade deal based on “high regulatory standards” — could be jeopardised if she was backed into a corner.
The British prime minister, who once claimed she needed a big electoral mandate to stand tall in the European Council, has adapted her position and is now trying to make her weakness into a strength.
In a presentation over dinner on Thursday night, she told leaders of the political risks she had taken in a conciliatory speech in Florence last month, in which she put €20bn on the table and agreed to all the EU’s terms on a future transition deal.
“She told them about the difficult political backdrop,” said one British official. The BBC reported one UK government figure saying that Mrs May’s “weak and stable” position could actually be useful to her.
Mrs May failed to get the green light she had hoped the summit would deliver for the start of talks on the transition deal — which British industry badly wants. That discussion is now set to resume in December.
But while the EU27 continues to put pressure on Mrs May, there was a concerted effort to ensure that she did not look isolated in Brussels and to recognise that Florence was a step in the right direction.
Mr Macron and Angela Merkel went out of their way to talk to Mrs May for the cameras. “The ball is not only in Great Britain’s court, it is also in our court at the same time,” the German chancellor said on Thursday night.
British PM Theresa May (centre) in Brussels with German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron © Getty
At a press conference on Friday, Mrs May confirmed that the UK would go through Brussels’ demands for more money on a “line by line” basis, with some in the Conservative party likely to resist strongly an exit bill running to tens of billions of pounds.
Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, was among three or four leaders who argued that the EU needed to do more to guide Mrs May through the political minefield of Conservative Eurosceptic politics by offering suggestions for compromises.
At the end of the discussion between the EU27 leaders, Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, again raised the idea — so far resisted by Germany and France — that he should help Mrs May by bringing forward discussion of any transition deal, which could make an exit bill more palatable in the UK.
Tensions inevitably remain. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, deplored what he said was a lack of debate about the dangers posed by a “no deal” outcome. Some senior figures complained it was not their job to resolve the Tory psychodrama over Europe, but it remains a preoccupation for leaders of the European bloc — just as it has done for the best part of 30 years.