British PM heads to Brussels to unblock Brexit talks

London (AFP) –


British Prime Minister Theresa May is travelling to Brussels on Monday for dinner with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in a bid to unblock Brexit talks ahead of a decisive European Union summit this week.

They will be joined by British Brexit minister David Davis and his EU counterpart, chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, May's spokesman told reporters.

Juncker declined to answer questions about the content of the meeting ahead of time, telling reporters in Brussels: "I will meet Mrs May this evening, we will talk and you will see the autopsy."

With criticism of her Brexit strategy building up at home from both moderates and hardliners within her own Conservative party, May is hoping for a breakthrough that will bolster her position and ease some of the uncertainty around Britain's withdrawal.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday are due to decide whether or not negotiators can move on to discussing post-Brexit trade ties with Britain if "sufficient progress" has been made in divorce talks.

The indication from the EU side is that they will postpone their decision to a summit in December as the break-up negotiations are currently deadlocked.

But Britain is still hoping for a positive signal that will ease growing concern, including from business leaders who say they will have start shifting some operations to the EU by the end of the year unless there is more certainty on Brexit.

"We've always said we want Britain leaving the EU to be a smooth process and this is part of achieving that," May's spokesman said of the 90-minute dinner which is to start at around 6:30 pm (1630 GMT).

He said the meeting was put in the diary "a number of weeks ago" even though it has not previously been mentioned either by British or EU officials.

The trip takes place as economic storm clouds gather for Britain, with companies reining in spending and foreign direct investment plunging as a result of last year's Brexit vote.

Even the Daily Telegraph newspaper, normally a staunch supporter of the government, on Monday warned it was "a grim time for Brexit optimists" and cited analysts predicting a further devaluation of the pound.

- 'Time to get on' -

On Sunday, May spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the two agreed "on the importance of continued constructive progress in the UK's exit negotiations", according to a statement from her Downing Street office.

She is also due to speak to French President Emmanuel Macron and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar later on Monday, ahead of the dinner in Brussels, her spokesman said.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also sought to drum up some goodwill on Sunday by hosting a group of East European foreign ministers for talks on security and light-hearted country walks at his official residence in Kent, southeast England.

"It is time to get on with these negotiations," Johnson said as he arrived for a meeting with his EU counterparts in Luxembourg on Monday.

"Let's put a tiger in the tank, let's get these conversations going and stop letting the grass grow under our feet."

- Suspend negotiations? -

Ahead of their meeting, commentators pointed to the bad taste left by May's last dinner with Juncker in April.

Details were leaked to German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in which Juncker reportedly said May was in a "different galaxy".

The British leader responded angrily to the leaks, accusing EU officials of trying to influence the outcome of the June general election with "threats against Britain".

Asked whether she was concerned about leaks this time around, May's spokesman said: "I expect a constructive dinner."

Some Brexit hardliners are meanwhile calling for a tougher approach from the government that could include walking out of the negotiations with no deal.

Former Brexit minister David Jones said Britain should suspend negotiations until the EU was prepared to talk "sensibly about money" and future trade terms.

The fifth round of discussions ended last week with Barnier warning the two sides were at an "extremely disturbing" deadlock over Britain's Brexit bill.

Brussels has insisted on reaching progress on its three priorities -- the exit bill, citizens' rights, and the border with Ireland -- before moving on to talks of a future relationship with London.