The next judgment will come at a European Council meeting in mid-December, and the second stage might then get underway, but only if Britain comes up with more cash and a clearer commitment to clearing up financial obligations stretching into the future — things like pension payments and regional projects already approved.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the most influential European leader, expressed confidence on Friday that there would be a deal to move ahead in December. But the constraints Mrs. May faces at home make meeting that deadline no sure thing.
Mrs. May made much of her speech last month in Florence, where she pledged at least 20 billion euros, or nearly $24 billion, to cover Britain’s budget contributions for 2019 and 2020, while promising in vague terms to “honor commitments we have made during the period of our membership.”
But as a senior diplomat of a country friendly to Britain put it: The European Union “won’t move an inch” until Britain gets serious about the financial part of the settlement in talks with the bloc’s negotiator, Michel Barnier. How payments are made and over what period of time can be discussed, the diplomat said. But “there’s only one desk” on which a clear British proposal must be placed, “and that is in Mr. Barnier’s office.”
According to British officials, at the dinner Mrs. May implored the other leaders for “a new dynamic” in the talks and cooperation “to get to an outcome that we can stand behind and defend to our people” — in other words, the British voters. She said much the same in her news conference here on Friday.
But in general the other leaders consider all that to be Britain’s problem, since it chose to leave, and they have voters of their own. Brexit is significant — it disrupts trade with a major economy, and means the bloc loses a nuclear power — but for them it is marginal in shaping Europe’s future beside issues like relations with Turkey, migration, Greek debt, collective defense, border controls and the digital market, to name the most pressing.
“I am ambitious and positive for Britain’s future and these negotiations,” Mrs. May said. “But I know we still have some way to go.”
Mrs. May reportedly suggested to her colleagues that Britain was prepared to pay another €20 billion or so, which is leading to more optimism about December, even if the European Commission estimates that Britain owes around €60 billion, not €40 billion. But this is, after all, a negotiation, and Mr. Barnier and his British counterpart, David Davis, have not discussed a specific sum, officials say, only categories of obligations.
For her part, Ms. Merkel said that she was optimistic that the December summit would allow the talks to proceed to the second phase, and said that the European Union also had work to do to reach consensus on guidelines for that stage.
But time is an issue. Britain is out by March 29, 2019, and there is a general understanding that a deal must be done by the end of October next year in order to give the European Parliament and the 28 member states — including Britain — time to ratify it.
In her concluding news conference, Ms. Merkel said that “we’ve been quite clear that insufficient progress has been made in terms of financial commitments.” She said that the idea of a two-year transition period after 2019, while a full trade agreement might be negotiated, “is an interesting idea, but we’re still in stage one,” another tepid response to Britain’s desire to expand the scope of the talks.
The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, put a warmer spin on the situation, saying that he thought reports of “deadlock” had been exaggerated, another indication of anxiety about Mrs. May’s future at home. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, was more acidic, saying that “no one had explained to the British” what Brexit really means, and that he favored the word “deadlock.”
The traditionally blunt Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaite, said that Mrs. May’s dinner speech appeared to be made up of extracts from the one she had made in Florence, and that it was now time to move “from words to real deeds.” Everyone, she said, must turn to “real negotiations and not just negotiating in the media by rhetoric.”
In a separate matter, the European leaders, beginning with Ms. Merkel and the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, expressed concern about the political crackdown in Turkey and asked the commission, the bloc’s executive arm, to look into reducing and redirecting some funds that had been aimed at preparing Turkey for European Union membership, a prospect which seems more remote than ever. But funds to help Turkey keep migrants away from Europe, Ms. Merkel emphasized, would continue to flow.