EU leaders are expected to offer Theresa May little more than kind words at a summit in the Austrian city of Salzburg on Wednesday, damping hopes of a Brexit breakthrough, despite a looming autumn deadline for agreement on a deal.
The Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, said on Friday that EU and UK talks were “closing in on workable solutions to the outstanding issues”, and Michel Barnier, the Brussels negotiator, has said a deal is possible within six to eight weeks.
In reality the talks have made no progress on the most difficult issue — the Northern Ireland “backstop” — in months. EU diplomats said hopes of a breakthrough had been put on ice until after the Tory party conference at the end of this month.
EU diplomats are now so wary about any initiative they propose being twisted and used against May by hardline Brexit MPs that they have decided to hold off on new proposals until she gets through the conference.
Last week rumours swirled in Brussels that EU leaders would agree new instructions for Barnier at the Salzburg summit, leaning on him to push more earnestly for a deal. But within days officials had scotched any hopes of a new mandate.
“This expectation is totally wrong,” said an EU diplomat.
Salzburg, once seen as a possible turning point in the talks, has been reduced to a mere stock-taking exercise. “The less that comes out of this summit, the better for everyone,” said a diplomat.
Instead, tough decisions on the Northern Ireland border have been put off until next month or a possible emergency leaders’ summit in November, bringing the negotiators dangerously close to a hard deadline on a withdrawal agreement.