The Prime Minister was urged by Euro-sceptic campaigners including senior Tory MPs to make preparations to quit the talks with EU chiefs if the issue of future trade is not on the table by the end of this year.
Their demand came after European Commission President Jean Claude-Juncker claimed the Brexit discussions were progressing so slowly that “miracles” were needed for the next deadline to be hit.
His intervention, a day after reports of “decisive steps forwards” in the negotiations, was being at Westminster last night as an attempt to de-stabilise the drive towards a deal.
Senior Tory MPs and business figures yesterday wrote to Mrs May urging her to quit the Brussels negotiations by the end of December if EU negotiators refuse to start discussing trade.
Brexit news: Theresa May urged to leave EU talks
By the end of October, we will not have sufficient progress
“If the EU is not seriously negotiating a free trade deal by Christmas 2017, the Government should give formal notice that we will move to World Trade Organisation rules in March 2019,” their letter said.
The letter was organised by Leave Means Leave, a pressure group campaigning for a full break with Brussels backed by around 50 Tory MPs.
Signatories to the letter included former ministers Owen Paterson and David Jones, senior Tory MP Peter Bone, Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman and business leaders Richard Tice and John Longworth.
It also raised concerns about the Prime Minister’s recent Brexit speech in Florence including an accusation that the Government was not acting quickly enough to tighten border rules after Brexit.
Juncker claimed Brexit discussions needed ‘miracles’ for the next deadline to be hit
“The proposal merely to register EU migrants during the transition period does not provide control over migration.
“Given the significant level of public concern over this issue, Leave voters will wish to see real change as quickly as possible after the UK leaves the EU, and not a delay for at least five years after the vote,” the letter said.
It also criticised the Prime Minister’s plans for a two-year transition period of continuing close ties to Brussels after the formal exit date in March 2019.
“This could result in an indefinite delay to a proper Brexit. There is no incentive for the EU to accelerate a free trade deal, unless they really believe we would move to World Trade Organisation rules,” the letter said.
Mr Juncker cast doubt on the talks yesterday by suggesting they were unlikely to have resolved preliminary issues before a crunch EU summit in October.
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At that gathering in Brussels, EU leaders are set to decide whether enough progress has happened for them to allow the talks to move onto a planned second phase that includes the issue of Britain’s future trade relations with the bloc.
“By the end of October, we will not have sufficient progress,” said Mr Juncker, attending a summit in Estonia.
“At the end of this week, I am saying that there will be no sufficient progress from now until October unless miracles will happen.”
Failure to hit the October deadline means starting trade talks before the end of the year will be virtually impossible.
Mr Juncker was just yards away from Mrs May at the summit in the Estonian capital of Tallinn when he made the remark.
Mrs May insisted her Florence speech had accelerated the drive towards a deal
His words were echoed by other leaders, with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also saying both sides would need “a small miracle” to make the required progress before the October summit. Irish leader Leo Varadkar said it was “still very evident that there’s more work to be done”.
The downbeat predictions contrasted with the more optimistic tone set by EU Exit Secretary David Davis and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier following the fourth round of their wrangling in Brussels earlier this week.
Mr Davis said the talks had made “decisive steps forward” while Mr Barnier said the pair had had “a constructive week”.
During the first three months of negotiations, the pair have been bogged down in disagreements over issues including the size of a multi-billion divorce payment and the future role of the European Court of Justice.
Mrs May yesterday insisted her speech in Florence last week fleshing out her Brexit plan had accelerated the drive towards a deal.
Mrs May met German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the summit in Estonia
“A week ago I gave a speech in Florence which set out how we have made good progress so far, I thought we could make further progress and moving on to looking at the future deep and special relationship and partnership that we want to build with the European Union when the UK has left the EU,” the Prime Minister said in Tallinn.
“I set out what I thought was the future deep and special partnership we can build with the EU, and I look for the speech that I set out for that being reciprocated in proposals that the EU will come forward with.”
“I made that speech to give momentum to the talks and I think we have seen that being shown in the talks that have taken place this week, and further progress has been made,” she added.
Mrs May yesterday met German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the summit in Estonia to try to get her support for pushing the talks on to trade.
Officials said Mrs Merkel, who returned to her post for a fourth term following Germany’s recent general election, acknowledged that progress was being made.
Following their meeting, a Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister reiterated her commitment to the UK being the strongest friend and partner to the EU after we leave.
“She said her Florence speech had been intended to create momentum in the ongoing talks and that the response from the EU 27 had been constructive.
“Chancellor Merkel welcomed the speech, and noted the good progress that had been made in negotiations this week.
“She looked forward to the next round of talks in early October.
“The Prime Minister and the Chancellor both agreed on the importance of settling the issue of citizens’ rights at the earliest opportunity.
“The Prime Minister pointed to the commitment made in her Florence speech to incorporate the agreement reached on citizens’ rights fully into UK law and make sure the UK courts can refer directly to it.
“The Prime Minister also stressed it was in everybody’s interests to agree to a time-limited implementation period once Britain leaves the EU, to provide certainty to businesses and others in both Britain and the EU.”