European leaders fear Theresa May’s government is too fragile to negotiate viable terms on which to leave the union, meaning the discussions that officially begin on Monday could end in a “brutal Brexit” – under which talks collapse without any deal.
As officials began gathering in Brussels on Sunday night, the long-awaited start of negotiations was overshadowed by political chaos back in Westminster, where chancellor Philip Hammond warned that failing to strike a deal would be “a very, very bad outcome”.
The EU side fears that, in reality, the British government will struggle to maintain any position without falling apart in the coming weeks and months, because – without support from the Democratic Unionist party – May’s negotiating hand is limited.
There are also concerns that any DUP backing to give May a majority in the House of Commons would come with strings attached.
Hammond has been urged to publish the costs of any deals made with the DUP to prop up the government. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has raised concerns over reports that the DUP wants to end airport tax on visitors to Northern Ireland, which generated about £90m in 2015/16, according to HMRC estimates.
Abolishing air passenger duty is one of the DUP’s key demands, as it pits Northern Ireland unfavourably against the Republic of Ireland, where the duty has been abolished.
As well as concern over any terms agreed with the DUP, May will have to assuage fears from Ireland’s new taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, when she meets him in Downing Street on Monday, that Brexit will not infringe on the rights of people in Ireland. The taoiseach will also raise the impact of any Tory-DUP deal on power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
The prime minister has said she is confident of getting the Queen’s speech through the Commons, regardless of whether a deal is reached with the DUP by the time of the state opening of parliament on Wednesday.
British Brexit negotiators are hoping to shore up confidence in their hardline approach to the start of talks by making early progress on the vexed question of citizens’ rights.
Brexit secretary David Davis is determined to demonstrate his take-it-or-leave-it approach to the two-year article 50 process is still on track and is understood to be willing to make concessions on citizens’ rights to help get the process off to credible start.
“We want both sides to emerge strong and prosperous, capable of projecting our shared European values, leading in the world, and demonstrating our resolve to protect the security of our citizens,” the secretary of state for leaving the EU is expected to tell his counterparts.
“I want to reiterate at the outset of these talks that the UK will remain a committed partner and ally of our friends across the continent.”
British officials have already conceded to EU demands for a ministerial presence to show they have political support for the planned monthly-cycle of meetings, although the first session is scheduled to last just one day.
While the British hope for an early win on citizens’ rights, EU sources said Monday’s agenda would mainly be focused on “talks about talks”, agreeing the logistics of Brexit negotiations, rather than details.
The UK had hoped officials could sort out these questions, but bowed to EU pressure that a person with a government mandate should lead the talks.
Facing Davis at the European commission’s star-shaped headquarters will be the senior French politician, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator.
The two men got to know each other when they served as Europe ministers in the mid-1990s. They have met only once since the referendum, in what the EU side described as a 30-minute “courtesy coffee”, when Davis made an under-the-radar trip to Brussels last November.
Talks will get under way at 10am UK time, continue over a working lunch and wrap up with an early evening joint press conference by Davis and Barnier.
But the EU remains unclear about what the British want from Brexit, following the electoral upset that deprived May of her majority.
“It raises new uncertainties and there is a big question mark about the position the UK will take,” Sandro Gozi, Italy’s European minister, told the Guardian.
Pierre Vimont, a veteran French diplomat, now at the Carnegie Europe thinktank, said lack of clarity did not matter for the opening, which was more about “a first glimpse into their overall attitude and position” and setting the tone.
“It will be atmospherics and the way both sides show a genuine commitment to work ahead. I think that will be the most important.
“But the British delegation will need to rather quickly put its house in order and to have a clear idea of where it wants to go.”
Barnier is insisting the British sign up to a Brexit divorce deal, covering citizens’ rights, the Brexit bill and the Irish border, before talks can move on to trade and future ties.
Davis, who previously said the timetable would be “the row of the summer”, is expected to initially bow to the EU’s approach, although a Department for Exiting the EU (DexEU) spokesman said: “As the EU has itself said, ‘nothing is agreed, until everything is agreed.’
“We believe that the withdrawal process cannot be concluded without the future relationship also being taken into account.”
According to Barnier’s team, it will be the EU’s 27 leaders who determine whether there has been “sufficient progress” to allow negotiations to advance.
An EU summit in October will be crunch time for the UK, when Barnier will hand EU leaders a report card on “sufficient progress” – a term left intentionally vague term in the EU’s negotiating texts.
In reality, technical details on the divorce are likely to spill over into 2018. The Irish border question is bound up with customs rules; the final Brexit bill and legally watertight guarantees for EU citizens could take months to emerge. “Everything is interlinked,” Vimont said.
If Barnier is to convince EU leaders the British have made progress, he will need an agreement on principles, Vimont said. “He needs to come with some tangible results. The risk of breakdown of talks because of a breakdown in the UK has increased – a brutal Brexit without any agreement at all, not because anyone is actively seeking that outcome but just because of a broken down process.
“You still have those in the Conservative party hell-bent on a hard Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn is smelling power and doesn’t seem particularly interested in helping out – quite the opposite,” one EU diplomat said.
“We are ready to make this work but if we don’t have a reliable and strong and stable opposite number, it puts the process at risk.”
Sir Nigel Elton Sheinwald, a former ambassador to the EU and the US, who was senior foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair in No 10, said the general election result was a “recipe for chaos” and that the British government’s tone coming into the negotiations had not so far promoted the UK’s interests.
“I don’t think we have approached this in the national interest,” he said. “The key to diplomacy isn’t being minding your Ps and Qs. It is thinking about your interests, how to advance them and realising the type of negotiation we are in.
“It is 27 against one that has never been undertaken before, where the only veto we have is to blow up the negotiations. It is not like any negotiations that the British prime minster has taken before in the EU.”
The chancellor also sounded sceptical about the feasibility of walking away in an interview on Sunday but accused Brussels of “posturing and chest-beating” in its demands too.
“No deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain, but there is a possible worse outcome and that is a deal that is deliberately structured to suck the lifeblood out of our economy over a period of time,” Hammond told the Andrew Marr show.
He repeated his calls for a deal that will allow British goods to flow “seamlessly” into Europe and called for a lengthy transition deal before abandoning EU freedom of movement requirements.
“First we home-grow the skills we need and then we deal with immigration issues,” he said.