EU leaders will not discuss Brexit at May’s first Brussels summit
Theresa May will address European leaders at dinner on Thursday but there will be no discussion of UK’s departure from EU
Jennifer Rankin in Brussels
Wednesday 19 October 2016 13.08 BST
The EU plans to avoid discussing Brexit at Theresa May’s first summit in Brussels on Thursday.
The British prime minister will be invited by the European council leader, Donald Tusk, to present “the current state of affairs in the country” at the end of a dinner on Thursday evening, but Tusk wants to avoid a discussion and will not invite other EU leaders to respond.
May’s remarks, where she is expected to reiterate the main talking points from her speech to the Conservative party conference, are down as an “any other business point”, underscoring that Britain is far down the priority list for the summit.
British diplomats in Brussels have been pressing for preparatory talks before May launches article 50, the EU exit process, which she has promised by the end of March 2017. But so far their entreaties have been rebuffed. EU diplomats insist the consensus on “no negotiations without notification” is intact.
Another EU diplomat said he expected May to reaffirm her intention to trigger article 50 next year, but beyond that “there is nothing to discuss”. The British prime minister is not expecting a discussion to take place.
The EU institutions do not see any hurry to start talks with the British and are content to wait for May’s article 50 letter. “We have our own problems, we need to think about our own future,” said one senior source. Following the triggering of article 50, an EU summit, excluding Britain, is likely to be called within two months.
Sylvie Goulard, a French liberal member of the European parliament, welcomed May’s clarity on when article 50 would be triggered, adding that the EU27 had to defend common principles on the four freedoms: goods, services, capital and people.
“Article 50 foresees the right of a country to leave the EU, it does not forsee the right to change the nature [of the EU],” she told the Guardian. “When it is getting difficult it is more important than ever to stick to some principles.”
For several countries, the top priority remains the migration crisis. More than 1,750 people a day were arriving in Italy at the start of October, although numbers making the journey to Greece have fallen sharply since last year.
Leaders will also seek to rescue a trade agreement with Canada, which is at risk of falling apart because of opposition from the Belgian region of Wallonia.
EU diplomats are waiting to find out whether the UK will drop its opposition to punitive tariffs on artificially-cheap Chinese steel, which has been putting European steelmakers out of business. Under David Cameron, the UK was part of a blocking group of member states that stopped the EU from hitting cheap Chinese imports with high tariffs to deter dumping.
One senior EU diplomat referred to May’s emphasis on industrial strategy and expressed hope the EU would find a consensus to strengthen its trade defences by the end of the year. “We will not convince the population to accept free trade if the EU does not protect its economic interests,” he said.
Observers have turned to the articles of May’s long-term special adviser, Nick Timothy, to look for clues on her thinking. Before starting work at No 10, Timothy criticised the British government’s deliberate “passivity in response to China’s trade policy”, although he did not mention EU anti-dumping rules.
Goulard said she was struck by the emphasis May had put on industrial policy and softening the impact of globalisation on the most disadvantaged, which sounded very familiar.
“It is quite French,” Goulard said, referring to May’s party conference speech. “She is in favour of a strong state, she is in favour of fighting inequalities, all things for which we were considered not modern.” But it was “too soon” to judge whether this would lead to a shift in policy from the British government, the MEP said.