The European Union and Britain have given themselves a few more weeks to break the deadlock in their Brexit talks but for Brussels the delay seems mainly about Prime Minister Theresa May dealing with critics back in London.
Putting aside the anxieties of some about the 585-page withdrawal text, the 27 member states collectively ruled out a redrafting of the agreement by either side during a meeting with Michael Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator.
Barnier had told the EU ambassadors they should not engage in “bargaining”, despite the political situation in the UK. A number of British cabinet ministers are said to have chosen to stay in their posts purely to engineer a change in the agreement.
France and Germany did press the European commission to put more “positive” language into the draft political declaration on the future trade deal that will accompany the withdrawal agreement, which is still being negotiated with the British. Olly Robbins, Downing Street’s Brexit adviser, was in Brussels on Friday and will return on Saturday.
Ambassadors for France and Germany called for a preamble to be added to the seven-page document due to be published on Tuesday in which both sides would commit to “an ambitious and deep relationship”, echoing the prime minister’s own previous language.
There were also moves to toughen demands on the UK in the political declaration in terms of the trade-off between access to British waters for EU fishing fleets and UK firms’ ability to sell fish into the European market.
A section on the “level playing field” requirements of the UK is also likely to be strengthened, with calls for “dynamic alignment” with a host of Brussels regulations, to reassure EU member states that Britain will not enjoy a competitive advantage from a future deal, in a move that could further poison the political atmosphere in London.
EU diplomats insisted, however, that the member states were in a mood to “help and assist” the prime minister.
Their leaders lined up later in the day on Friday to emphasise that a renegotiation of the 107,000-word draft withdrawal treaty was not on the cards and highlight the risk to the British economy of parliament rejecting what has been agreed with Downing Street.
The Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, told reporters in Brussels: “It is a good deal for both sides. Nobody has been cheated. This deal prevents a hard Brexit. Therefore it helps us in Europe, but even more so it helps Great Britain because a hard Brexit would hit Great Britain significantly more severely.”
He added: “I very much hope that there will be the necessary agreement in the British parliament for this deal. And this would then provide the basis on which an orderly exit of Great Britain can happen and that at the same time a good relationship in the future will be possible … Of course, we support the deal made here 100%.”
The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, insisted that EU countries would not be willing to change the proposed Brexit deal.
“It is highly unlikely that we will make important changes to these proposals”, Rutte said. “We have talked about this for so long, everybody has been heavily involved. We will have a good look at parts of the proposals, but major changes seem unlikely to me.”
The Irish PM, Leo Varadkar, said he could not see “much room” for a renegotiation, warning that enforcing changes could “see the whole thing unravel”.
Emmanuel Macron’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, attending a trade forum in Paris, warned British MPs of the “economic disaster” facing the UK should it reject the offer on the table.
“The choice now faced by British political leaders who have advocated Brexit is to renounce their absurd political promise or face economic disaster, with the British people the main victims,” the French minister said.
“There are a number of lying and irresponsible politicians in Britain who told the British people that Brexit would turn out to be a golden tomorrow … The truth is that Brexit could end with a nightmare.”
In a meeting with Barnier earlier in the day, the French EU ambassador had tempered Paris’s calls for more positive language with a request for a recital of the EU’s position on the “indivisibility” of the single market.
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