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

Media captionTheresa May welcomed the Brexit talks, as she arrived at the summit

The EU’s 27 other leaders will meet without the UK’s Theresa May later to discuss their Brexit negotiation plans.

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.

It comes as the UK government plays down a suggestion that negotiating a UK-EU trade deal could take 10 years.

The BBC understands the UK’s senior diplomat in the EU warned ministers that the European consensus was that a deal might not be done until the early to mid-2020s.

Arriving in Brussels, Mrs May was asked about the 10-year claim, but concentrated her answer on the subject of immigration, which is what the EU leaders are focusing on during a chunk of their one-day summit.

She added that a smooth UK exit from the EU was “not just in our interests, it’s in the interests of the the rest of Europe as well”.

Despite her absence from the dinner, Downing Street said Mrs May would play a full role in talks on other issues such as Syria.

This was echoed by European Parliament president Martin Schulz, who told the 28 leaders the UK would still enjoy the “rights and benefits” of EU membership while still fulfilling its “duties”.

‘All about procedure’

Katya Adler, BBC Europe editor

The timing of this dinner is a diary convenience.

Getting 27 world leaders round one table isn’t easy, especially when a number of them are fighting for political survival at home.

So, while together in Brussels anyway for the summit, Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Francois Hollande et al agreed to stay a bit longer to talk Article 50, the by-now long-awaited triggering by the UK of formal Brexit talks, that Mrs May promises early next year.

Dinner tonight, my sources tell me, will be all about procedure.

The EU27 (as the leaders minus the UK now call themselves) will formally re-confirm the European Commission as the lead Brexit negotiator for the whole European Union.

Make no mistake, in such a complex and politically important process, Germany, France and other EU countries will keep a very close eye on the Commission but they know it is the only EU institution with the manpower, the expertise (it leads all EU trade negotiations) and a legal mandate (as so-called guardian of EU Treaties) for detailed negotiations.

So much for Brexit procedure; as for content over tonight’s nibbles, my sources insist there’s little to discuss until the UK government makes a firm commitment to the kind of Brexit it wants.

At the summit the leaders are discussing 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.

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

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Theresa May greeted foreign leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel in Brussels

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Theresa May chats to European Council president Donald Tusk (left) and Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel at the start of the summit

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The UK is still a member of the EU, even during the Brexit process

One of the issues to be discussed by the 27 non-UK EU leaders is who will lead their negotiating team, amid tensions between the different EU institutions. It is expected to be former EU Commissioner Michel Barnier who is in charge of the European Commission’s Brexit team.

Former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, who is leading the European Parliament’s Brexit taskforce, claimed it could start separate negotiations with the UK unless EU leaders take “its role seriously”.

He warned the European Commission not to “sideline” the Parliament.

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.

“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 to 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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