Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have agreed to “accelerate” stalled Brexit talks amid fears that a deadlock could harm both the UK and EU.
The Prime Minister and Juncker issued a rare joint statement stressing that their working dinner in Brussels on Monday night had been “constructive and friendly”.
But it remained unclear whether either side had given any ground on the crunch issues of the UK’s “divorce bill” and future trade relations with the EU during and after a transition period.
And the fact that both sides felt it was necessary to call for more frequent talks underlined for some the lack of sufficient progress to date.
Britain is set to leave the 28-nation bloc in March 2019 and May is under intense pressure from her Brexiteer ministers and MPs to walk away from the talks unless Brussels starts discussing by Christmas what will happen after “exit day”.
Earlier, Juncker had appeared to ridicule the PM, joking to reporters: “I will see Mrs May this evening, we will talk and you will have the autopsy report afterwards.”
French President Emmanuel Macron also suggested that talks about Brexit would only be made in the “margins” of the EU summit this Thursday and Friday. The UK hopes that a formal discussion can be held on the issue.
There were no details of how regularly the Brexit talks will now occur, but face-to-face negotiations between the UK and EU officials have taken place only four days every month.
The fifth round of talks ended last week with the EU warning that more progress was needed.
May is understood to have made clear to Juncker and to EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier that she had nothing further to offer beyond her speech in Florence last month, when she signalled she wanted to help meet the UK’s ongoing financial obligations.
Before the dinner, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had said that the EU “must stop letting the grass grow under our feet”.
In their joint statement, May and Juncker said they had had a “broad, constructive exchange on current European and global challenges”.
“As regards the Article 50 negotiations, both sides agreed that these issues are being discussed in the framework agreed between the EU27 and the United Kingdom, as set out in Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.
“The Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission reviewed the progress made in the Article 50 negotiations so far and agreed that these efforts should accelerate over the months to come. The working dinner took place in a constructive and friendly atmosphere.”
Last week an internal draft document suggested the EU was going to begin preparing for the possibility of trade talks beginning in December - provided the UK does more to bridge the gap on the key negotiating points.
Tom Brake MP, Liberal Democrat Brexit Spokesperson, said the bland nature of the joint statement raised more questions than it answered.
“This is a welcome change in tone from Theresa May, standing in marked contrast to her ludicrous claim that EU leaders were trying to interfere in the UK election.
“But with just eighteen months of Brexit talks left, this statement barely even registers on the Richter scale. The government must break the deadlock by making a bold offer on EU citizens’ rights and the settlement bill. And the EU must reciprocate by agreeing to talk trade.”