Angela Merkel has threatened to pull the plug on the Brexit summit unless negotiations are finalised within 24 hours.
The German chancellor has let it be known through her diplomats in Brussels that she is unwilling to negotiate when the EU’s leaders and the British prime minister meet in Brussels on Sunday.
The pressure is now on for Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker to sign off on a final form of the political declaration on the future relationship by the end of their meeting in Brussels on Wednesday evening, ready for the document’s publication on Thursday morning.
The EU and the UK have already signed off on the 585-page withdrawal agreement covering citizens’ rights, the £39bn financial settlement and the Irish border.
Negotiators have been continuing to work on the terms of the political declaration, a seven-page outline of which was published last week.
Berlin is understood be frustrated by continued attempts by France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium to insert more concrete assurances on access to British fishing waters as a condition for a trade agreement.
Spain has also been demanding an assurance that Gibraltar will not be covered by any future trade deal unless Madrid gives its consent. The Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has said he will not give his government’s agreement to the deal on Sunday without such a guarantee. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has privately conceded it is a “serious political and legal problem”.
German officials told the other member states at a meeting on Tuesday that Merkel would not attend Sunday’s summit unless a deal was urgently nailed down.
May in turn has been seeking to insert stronger references to her proposals on “frictionless” trade in goods into the political declaration. Berlin fears a long-drawn-out summit on Sunday could allow “Chequers in via the backdoor”, according to senior EU diplomats.
The European commission’s vice president, Valdis Dombrovskis, confirmed to reporters in Brussels that the EU had conditions on holding a summit.
“For that we will need to have agreed beforehand on the political declaration on the future relationship and we are not there yet,” he said. “Sherpas are due to meet on Friday. Of course they will need to see a final text before then and the commission stands ready to consider the text and take any action at any time.”
Leaders for the 27 EU member state are due to meet at 9.30am on Sunday before being joined by May joining for an hour from 11am.
An EU diplomat said: “Some member states underlined that the political declaration should be ready before the summit. Their leaders have no intention to come for negotiations.”
France has, however, toned down its demands on fishing rights to emulate EU guidelines published in March that ask for “reciprocal access to waters and resources”, rather than a full-blown guarantee of the current system.
It is possible that further negotiating demands on fisheries, and on the UK’s need to dynamically align on environmental, social and labour regulations in any future deal, could be made in side-declarations. An EU official said the summit would go ahead as long as Juncker and May could finish off the text before Thursday.
Speaking in the Bundestag, Merkel said her government was ready to approve the Brexit deal but admitted to concerns about Spain’s intentions towards Gibraltar.
She said: “We know how difficult the discussions are in Britain, but I can say for Germany that we will agree to this exit agreement. We still have an objection in Spain. I can’t say exactly how we solve this issue, but I hope it will be solved by Sunday …
“We want – and that is in our fundamental interests – to have a good relationship with Britain in the future too.”
Merkel said the withdrawal agreement, including the issue of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, had been “very, very difficult to solve”.
The EU has offered a UK-wide customs union with the bloc as a backstop solution for avoiding the drawing of a customs border in the Irish sea.
To the anger of the former Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, who resigned over the issue, the EU and UK would have to jointly agree to exit the customs union on the basis that a more comprehensive trade deal, or other arrangement, had emerged to solve the problem.
Merkel said. “I think rightly, we have placed value on Britain not being able to decide unilaterally when it ends the customs union, but rather that Britain together with the EU defines this date and afterwards the future relationship comes into effect,” she said.
May’s spokesman insisted there had been no change regarding Sunday’s summit. “A summit has been called, an agenda has been published, we look forward to attending,” he said.
Downing Street appeared to be fairly sanguine about the deadlines being set by EU leaders. “The negotiations will take as long as they take to deliver on the right deal,” May’s spokesman . “I’m not able to predict when it will conclude.”
May has spoken to a number of EU leaders and has plans to speak to more. She is holding a working lunch with the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, in Downing Street on Thursday.