Brexit: EU leaders to discuss UK’s exit without Theresa May

Theresa May at October's European Council summitImage copyright

The EU’s 27 other leaders will meet without British Prime Minister Theresa May later to discuss their plans for the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

They will have dinner at the European Council summit in Brussels amid tensions over the handling of talks.

Downing Street said Mrs May had not sought to be present at the dinner and the meeting showed the EU was facing up to the reality that the UK was leaving.

No 10 said she would play a full role in talks on other issues such as Syria.

The leaders will also discuss controlling mass migration into Europe, the EU’s relationship with Ukraine, co-operation with Nato and economic matters.

The UK is to send a further 40 officials to Greece to try and speed up asylum claims from Iraqis, Afghans and Eritreans arriving there in an effort to deter others from coming.

There are already 70 UK caseworkers “experienced” in dealing with the return of asylum-seekers taking part in the trial scheme.

The UK is pressing for more EU-wide action to tackle economic migration at its source, working with countries such as Libya and Egypt to help control their borders.

Barnier role

Mrs May will also hold bilateral meetings with the leaders of Latvia and Lithuania as well as the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz.

It comes amid claims by former Belgian prime minister Guy Vehofstadt, who is leading the European Parliament’s Brexit taskforce, that it could start separate negotiations with the UK unless EU leaders take “its role seriously”.

One of the issues likely to be discussed by the 27 is who will lead their negotiating team in talks expected to take 18 months. It is expected to be former EU Commissioner Michel Barnier who is in charge of the European Commission’s Brexit team.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said the EU must decide how it would organise itself and that there would be no British observers nor officials present at the dinner.

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Former EU Commissioner Michel Barnier is expected to be named chief negotiator

“It shows they are facing up to the reality that the UK is leaving the EU, that we are going to be triggering Article 50 by the end of March,” she said.

“That means they are going to need to know how they are going to handle the process where they have got to work out the position of the 27.”

Mrs May spoke to the new Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni on Wednesday. She has already held face-to-face talks with 23 EU leaders to brief them on the UK’s intentions after June’s referendum vote to leave the EU.

The prime minister also spoke to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, who confirmed she would update the rest of the EU on the UK’s preparations.

On Wednesday, her Brexit Secretary David Davis said the UK would not spell out its negotiating aims in more detail until February at the earliest and nothing “hazardous” would be included which could jeopardise the potential outcome.

Transition talk

He said he had not ruled out the need for temporary transitional arrangements once the UK leaves to help businesses adjust but only “if this was necessary”.

A senior EU official said that, by the end of the summit, the 27 would be “procedurally prepared” for the negotiations and there was a consensus that although the process would be led by the Commission it would be “controlled” by the member states.

It said the 27 were sticking to the principle of “no negotiation without notification”, meaning talks could only begin once the UK triggered Article 50.

Mr Barnier, who has warned the UK it will not be able to “cherry pick” elements of EU membership it wishes to retain, has been taking his own soundings with EU leaders.

Hungarian officials told the BBC that they hoped the shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU could be negotiated in tandem with the terms of its exit and that some form of transitional agreement would be needed.

The summit could see tensions over the EU’s agreement with Turkey to cut illegal migration, attempts to forge closer links with Ukraine and the situation in Syria, with the UK pushing for a clearer position on access for humanitarian assistance and hold combatants in the conflict accountable for any war crimes committed.

EU leaders will also hold a joint session with Nato boss Jens Stoltenberg, amid calls from US President-elect Donald Trump for EU members to do more to pull their weight.

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