BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Theresa May’s first EU summit was never going to be easy but Thursday’s encounter in Brussels may be a thoroughly bleak affair now that fellow leaders feel she has taken a hard line on breaking away from the European Union.
The British prime minister caught the other 27 off guard on Oct. 2 when, having campaigned to stay in the bloc, she thrilled her Conservatives’ conference in Birmingham with rousing pledges to start Brexit talks by March, curb immigration and reject EU court rulings -- a recipe, EU leaders said, for “hard Brexit”.
When, over after-dinner coffee on the first of two days of talks, she briefs the summit on her plans, the rest will listen closely for any sign of more flexibility on what she wants in order to retain closer trade ties. But despite talk in London of May still exploring options, EU officials and diplomats do not expect there to be much softening, on either side, this week.
“How this is going to end, no one knows,” one senior EU official said. “For now, the train is heading towards a wall.”
And amid fears that wily British diplomacy may set them off against each other to secure a “cherry picking” deal that could further unravel the entire Union, the 27 will present May with the kind of united front not always seen in the EU summit room.
“There’s a surprising degree of consensus,” a second senior EU official said. “No one wants to give the Brits an opening.”
After the Birmingham speech, EU leaders welcomed an end to uncertainty over when Britain would launch the two-year divorce process. But although May called key players beforehand to alert them to her timetable, none was ready for her list of demands.
Aides to German Chancellor Angela Merkel found the party tone “menacingly harsh”; French President Francois Hollande, who like Merkel faces an electoral test next year from euroskeptics inspired by June’s Brexit referendum, said Britain had chosen a painful break and must be held to the consequences.
Summit chair Donald Tusk spoke to May late on Tuesday and does not expect discussion after she briefs the summit. EU leaders insist there be no “pre-negotiation” before May writes to Brussels with a formal notification of Britain’s demands.
Some seem more inclined than others, however, to accede to British requests that they help May prepare her letter to ensure that whatever she asks for is not simply rejected out of hand. Some EU diplomats note Brussels’ cooperation with May’s predecessor David Cameron last year before he sought EU concessions that were mostly granted in the hope he would win the referendum.
But the mood appears to have hardened in EU capitals.
With Cameron, a third senior EU official said, “we were on the same side”, working together to help him keep Britain in the bloc. “Now, it’s different,” he said, with London and the 27 pursuing divergent goals that may be mutually incompatible.
In particular, the 27 are determined to show Britons -- and any others tempted to break up the EU -- that the benefits of a common market, with its favorable tariff terms, are not available to those unwilling to accept full free migration within the EU or the authority of EU judges.
To those in London who see that as an opening gambit, EU leaders have responded with sharper rhetoric, ruling out a “soft Brexit” that keeps Britain anchored in the single market. Summit host Tusk took Brexit campaigners to task for joking that Britain can “have its cake and eat it” and dangled the prospect of Britons backing out of Brexit.
The former Polish premier’s willingness to engage in debate with Britain reflects an impression on the continent that the country, and even May’s own cabinet, is still in a quandary over what voters want and how to deliver it. The prime minister has said she is still listening to “differing views” on her team.
EU officials say that behind closed doors British officials have been trying to keep open options for closer engagement with the EU, raising for example the possibility that London might go on contributing to an EU budget that subsidizes eastern Europe.
Some have also played down May’s Birmingham speech as designed to win support for the unelected leader within her own euroskeptic party, not as a final word to Brussels. “May is talking hard Brexit but other officials are saying ‘maybe we can work things out’ - so which is it?” the second EU official said.
British officials say May and her inner circle have given little indication of what they expect to negotiate. A fourth senior EU official familiar with the issue said: “(The British) civil service have no clue what the political class wants.”
For EU leaders, expecting at this stage to hear little new from May that she has not said in public, the priority at the summit may be to close up their own ranks ahead before March.
“What the EU needs to do,” the third EU official said, “Is anticipate what May will ask for and prepare for it, from now.”
Additional reporting by Noah Barkin in Berlin, Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan in London, Elizabeth Pineau and Yves Clarisse in Paris, Crispian Balmer in Rome and Gabriela Baczynska and Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; editing by Ralph Boulton