EU leaders will not hold a debate on Brexit at a key EU summit on Thursday and Friday, despite Boris Johnson’s trip to Brussels to try and unblock trade talks.
The decision is a blow to hopes that the 27 presidents and prime ministers could stage their own last-minute political intervention to approve concessions for the UK.
A senior EU official said it was a “not the intention to have a decision or a debate” on Brexit at the meeting.
“What we might have is a debrief on the state of play of the situation by the president of the European Commission, still subject to confirmation, just to take stock of where we are,” they said.
“We don’t want to be dragged into a debate on this and I think member states are quite clear on this. We trust the negotiator and the negotiator will tell us when it’s possible [to get a deal].
Mr Johnson is flying to Brussels on Wednesday evening to have dinner with Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, with the aim of convincing the EU to change tack in talks.
But hopes of a breakthrough at the summit the day after have now faded after leaders decided to prioritise other issues for discussion, such as coronavirus, climate change, and, their relationship with the United States.
Ireland’s former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who is now the country’s deputy leader, said on Wednesday afternoon ahead of the meeting that he believed Mr Johnson was open to compromise.
He told Irish public broadcaster RTE that the PM’s natural instincts are closer to the “liberal” London mayor than the more “conservative” Brexiteer.
“Is Boris Johnson willing to make concessions in those areas? I think he probably is,” he told Irish public broadcaster RTE.
“If I know him, and I don’t know him that well, but I know him a bit, I think his natural instincts are much closer to the more liberal London mayor that he was than the more conservative Brexiteer.
“I think he wants Britain to be part of the world, and I think he wants Britain to be seen as a country that is a first actor, one with high standards. However, he will be very strong on the sovereignty point and I think any set of common minimum standards, any set of level playing field rules, would have to be one that the UK feels are imposed on them.
“That will be a circle that is going to be hard to square.”
His comments follow a rare intervention from Angela Merkel, who backed a tougher negotiating position by Brussels in the talks.
Speaking in the Bundestag on Wednesday, the Chancellor told German MPs: “We must have a level playing field not just for today, but we must have one for tomorrow or the day after, and to do this we must have agreements on how one can react if the other changes their legal situation.
“Otherwise there will be unfair competitive conditions that we cannot ask of our companies.”
The dispute alluded to by Ms Merkel is over the so-called “level playing field” on regulations and centres around whether the UK will be held to a simple “non-regression” clause on labour and environmental standards, or whether it would have to give further guarantees.
Under the tougher “ratchet clause” plan backed by some EU member states Britain would sign up to increasing its standards in line with the EU’s, albeit in its own way and under its own steam..
Her intervention comes after The Independent revealed that EU trade unions are lobbying behind the scenes for the stricter approach.
A letter from the general secretary of the ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation) to negotiator Michel Barnier warned of “concern” that the EU could drop the tougher “ratchet” plan.
The issue has received support from member states, like Germany, who are normally relatively sympathetic to the UK.
They are concerned that Britain, the fifth or sixth biggest economy in the world sitting on their doorstep, would be able to outcompete the EU by adopting lower standards in the future.
But the UK government says the whole point of Brexit is that it must be free to diverge from the UK and adopt a different economic model if it chooses to.
“There is still the chance of an agreement,” Ms Merkel told the German parliament.
“One thing is clear: the integrity of the [EU’s] internal market must be preserved.
“If there are conditions from the British side which we cannot accept, we are prepared to go down a road which is without an exit agreement.”
Speaking to journalists in Westminster ahead of Mr Johnson’s trip, the prime minister’s official spokesperson downplayed hopes of an immediate breakthrough.
“If progress can be made at political level this may allow Lord Frost and his negotiating team to resume the talks in the coming days but we need to see how the talks this evening go first,” he said.
“Time is in very short supply, which is why the prime minister is going tonight to try to inject some political impetus into the process.”
The spokesperson did not rule out the possibility that parliament may have to sit during the Christmas break to vote through any deal, saying only: “We are confident that should we get a free trade agreement there is time for parliament to pass any necessary legislation. We have seen that parliament is able to act with pace if needed. We ill set out parliamentary business in the usual way.”
Asked if the PM regards tonight’s meeting as a negotiation, press secretary Allegra Stratton replied: “No, it’s a dinner, it’s a conversation between two political leaders trying to assess where they both stand.”