Theresa May will on Monday hold Brexit talks with French president Emmanuel Macron and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, before flying to Brussels to try to engineer a breakthrough in stalled exit negotiations.
Mrs May is expected to urge Mr Macron in a telephone conversation to soften his approach, with France insisting that Britain makes further commitments on a Brexit financial settlement before moving on to the next phase in talks.
Meanwhile Mr Varadkar is holding out for further assurances from Mrs May that the north-south frontier in Ireland will remain nothing more than a line on the map after Brexit, and will not become an obstacle to the free flow of goods.
Mrs May’s efforts represent a push for a political breakthrough ahead of a meeting of EU heads of state on Thursday, with some members of her party growing angry that the EU has not reciprocated her recent attempt at a conciliatory speech in Florence.
Downing Street said last month’s speech was intended “to create momentum” and said Monday’s talks were intended to “reflect upon Florence and the constructive way in which it has been received”.
But the prime minister’s office batted away suggestions that Mrs May might travel to Brussels for dinner with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker with any new financial offer.
Alongside Mr Juncker at the dinner will be his chief of staff, Martin Selmayr; Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator; David Davis, the UK Brexit secretary; and Olly Robbins, the prime minister’s representative at the negotiations.
Mr Juncker, speaking in Brussels, said ahead of the dinner: “I will see Mrs May this evening. We will talk, and you will see at the autopsy.”
French officials said on Monday they wanted Mr Barnier’s team to focus on resolving Brexit divorce arrangements — including a financial settlement — before moving on to a second phase of talks on a future trade deal and a transitional arrangement.
“If we can help out Mrs May without threatening the sequencing of the negotiation, we’ll do it,” said one. “But it’s a delicate balancing act, because the Brexit team cannot be distracted too much. They need to focus on the first part of the negotiations. If we have to choose, our priority goes to the divorce deal.
“There is no softening of the French position. Instead there is a realisation in the UK that the Germans were never softer than us. In fact, we are perfectly aligned.
“There are some who are pushing us to send a positive message to May after her speech in Florence. OK, but we [French and Germans] are the ones reminding everyone that priority is the sequencing of the negotiation.”
The last dinner between Mrs May and Mr Juncker in April was a diplomatic disaster. Afterwards, an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper said Mr Juncker had been “shocked” by Mrs May’s position.
“Theresa May started by stating that the UK wanted to discuss first future arrangements, then Article 50 stuff,” one source with knowledge of the dinner said. “It felt to the EU side like she does not live on planet Mars but rather in a galaxy very far away.”
Mrs May later accused European politicians and officials of plotting to “deliberately affect” the result of the UK’s June general election by issuing “threats” against Britain. She said bureaucrats had “misrepresented” the UK’s position on Brexit, adding that some of them “do not want these talks to succeed”.