Theresa May to 'bypass' Barnier and appeal directly to national leaders to win Brexit deal

LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May will appeal directly to European leaders in her key Brexit speech in Florence on Friday, deliberately bypassing the European Union’s negotiating team.

The prime minister believes that the UK government should deal directly with the heads of the EU27 member states, who make up the European Council, rather than the EU’s negotiating team, led by chief negotiator Michel Barnier, the Times newspaper reports.

Earlier this week, May’s top EU adviser Oliver Robbins contacted several European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to reassure them that the speech will contain a financial offer, which is expected to be around €20 billion.

May is expected to make the financial offer in an attempt to create progress in the stalled Brexit negotiations so talks can move onto a future relationship between the UK and EU.

One EU ambassador from an influential European country told the Times newspaper that the prime minister and her government should not attempt to sidestep Barnier.

He said: “May cannot bypass the European Commission. Those conditions are clear. There are signs that the British have been trying to talk to each and every government. The UK has misread this. Divide and rule will not work because unity is very solid.”

The prime minister said on Wednesday that she was meeting “a number of EU leaders” this week and added: “What I will be doing on Friday is setting out an update on where we are and looking ahead in the negotiations.

“The negotiations are structured so the council has given a mandate to the commission which has appointed Michel Barnier but the decision will be taken by leaders.”

Downing Street claimed May was just laying out the facts, saying: “It’s a process question: Michel Barnier negotiates and the European Council decides whether we’ve made progress.”

The European Council will meet in October to determine whether “sufficient progress” has been made in Brexit negotiations so far, and will only give a mandate to Barnier to move talks on if they decide this.

May’s attempt to appeal directly to EU leaders is seen as a bid to force progress in talks through, although there are fears that the speech will be badly received by governments across Europe.

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer met with the EU negotiating team this week and told the Guardian: “They want to see real progress, and they want follow through, not a speech and nothing else.”

He said: “There is clearly cause for concern about the rate of progress in Brussels just as there is in the UK. And the ball is very much in the prime minister’s court,” and the EU expect to hear the prime minister “talking about the money.”

Following the publication of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s vision for a “glorious” Brexit last week, some EU officials have expressed worries that the government is not united over its Brexit plan, and this will hamper talks.

The European Parliament’s lead Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt said he thought the government was engaged in an “internal battle.” He said: “We feel, hopefully I am wrong, that we don’t receive always a clear UK position.”

May made a speech at the United Nations on Wednesday night where she outlined Britain’s foreign policy, but did not mention Brexit.

Labour MP Chuka Umunna, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign said: “Brexit might be turning into a nightmare for her government, but sticking her head in the sand and pretending it doesn’t exist won’t make it go away. We can only hope for a more impressive performance in her speech in Florence on Friday, but no one should be holding their breath.”

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