New draft negotiating guidelines leaked tonight show a number of proposed alterations to EU leaders’ conclusions that paint a bleaker picture of the progress in the talks.
They were released just hours before Theresa May dine swith EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker at a meeting this evening, in talks which were hoped will help break the Brexit deadlock.
In a first version of the dossier, drawn up by EU Council president Donald Tusk, the 27 European capitals had provided notable wiggle room for Michel Barnier to advance the negotiations.
As well as promising to begin “internal preparatory discussions” on a transition and trade deal they had also given the Frenchman some discretion over what he deemed to be sufficient progress.
But whilst the key pledge to start talking trade for the first time – albeit only amongst themselves – remains, the softer language on reaching the second phase of the talks has been scrubbed.
Paris and Berlin were apparently concerned that the first draft of the conclusions came too close to committing the bloc to declaring sufficient progress at its next summit in December.
There is currently an internal debate going on within Europe between those countries who feel the time has come to open trade talks with the UK and Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron, who are opposed to that.
In the first version of the document EU leaders were to declare that Britain needed to “live up to” the conditions set out in the bloc’s negotiation mandate before sufficient progress can be declared.
However, that wording has now been tightened so that the UK must “comply” instead. This language offers Mr Barnier less room to interpret the spirit of offers put on the table by the British side.
Wording about internal trade discussions has also been altered to remove a reference that they should be started “in order to be ready for” a declaration of sufficient progress.
Germany and France feared this came too close to suggesting the talks can be moved on in December, and so it was changed to make such talks “against the background” of the UK complying with EU demands.
A mention has also been inserted about specifically achieving sufficient progress “on each of the three issues” – citizens’ rights, the Brexit bill and Ireland – in a sharp retort to British intransigence over the cash.
Elsewhere a line has been inserted “reaffirming” the original guidelines handed down to Mr Barnier, who has been pleading with member states to let him off his tight leash.
And in a passage on citizens’ rights there has been the addition of a reference to the “role of the European Court of Justice” – something which is a key red line for the British side.
The changes will be seen as a slap in the face to Britain after the Brexit secretary David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson both urged EU leaders to loosen Mr Barnier’s mandate.
The Frenchman has become increasingly frustrated with the prison-like nature of his guidelines and has been asking European capitals to give him scope to begin transition talks with the UK.
His efforts are believed to be being blocked by just three countries – Germany, France and Romania. Berlin, in particular, wants more connected commitments from Britain on cash before trade discussions begin.
But the UK Government is adamant that, whilst it is prepared to honour its budgetary commitments to the bloc, it will not sign a huge cheque until it knows what a future partnership might look like.