Will EU's Salzburg summit mark a Brexit turning point?

Katya Adler
Europe editor
@BBCkatyaadleron Twitter

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image captionWelcome to Salzburg: Theresa May will be buoyed by the Austrian chancellor's call to avoid a hard Brexit

Hype is part and parcel when it comes to EU summits during the Brexit process. How many times have we heard that an upcoming meeting of EU leaders is either a deadline, a turning point or even a last chance in negotiations?

Except that invariably this turns out not to be the case and Brexit cans are kicked, once again, down the twist-and-turn path of EU-UK talks.

Will Salzburg be any different?

Theresa May fervently hopes so. The informal summit in Salzburg this week is the first time that EU leaders have sat together since she presented them with her by-now-infamous Chequers Brexit proposal.

The prime minister and a couple of key ministers invested a lot of time this summer touring European capitals in an attempt to persuade EU leaders to turn their back on what London regards as the overly officious, rules and regulations-obsessed European Commission.

Instead they want them to embrace her more "creative" plan for the EU-UK post-Brexit relationship.

The prime minister believes that time is on her side. Not much room left any more for kicking Brexit cans down the road in Brussels. The time allowed under EU law for negotiations is fast running out.

And Theresa May knows EU leaders want a Brexit deal this autumn.

She will have felt further buoyed this weekend, when, following a meeting between Germany's Angela Merkel and Austria's Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian prime minister commented that everything possible must now be done to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

Is the EU softening its position?

Short answer: not really, however much wishful thinking may have been or may still be going on in Downing Street.

Yes, EU leaders see the political turmoil in the UK over Brexit.

They see Theresa May in trouble and they want to throw her as much of a lifeline as they can - because, as I say above, they really, really, really want a Brexit deal this autumn.

As we heard with Sebastian Kurz, EU words are becoming warmer, more encouraging and even softening in tone, but just to be clear, this is more atmospherics than a sea change in the EU's negotiating stance.

EU leaders do not appear willing to compromise what they see as key EU principles to get a Brexit deal done.

Take Emmanuel Macron, for example, and don't forget: France and Germany still lead in the EU on issues as big as this.

Over and over again the French president emphasises that France and the EU as a whole want to keep a deep and close relationship with the UK after Brexit - but, he always insists, this cannot come at the price of compromising the EU itself.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionWhile the French president wants a deep relationship with the UK, it will not come at the expense of the EU

"France wants to maintain a strong, special relationship with London but not if the cost is the European Union's unravelling," is what he told a gathering of French ambassadors a couple of weeks ago.

Despite progress in Brexit negotiations, which will be discussed in Salzburg, Theresa May still insists on her red lines, as she did once again in her BBC interview aired on Monday.

No more big payments into the EU budget, no more freedom of movement of EU workers to come to the UK, no more European Court of Justice supremacy over UK laws, no more European single market, etc.

But the EU is also refusing to stray from its "no cherry-picking" mantra.

media captionTheresa May says she believes the alternative to her negotiations "will be not having a deal"

You're in or you're out, says Brussels; there'll be no partial membership of the single market for the UK after Brexit.

EU leaders are also not softening on the key sticking-point in finalising the UK's exit agreement from their club: the Irish border.

Brussels isn't backing down from its insistence on a fall-back clause, ensuring that, whatever the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and EU looks like in the end, there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Comments at the weekend by key Brexiteer and Environment Secretary Michael Gove only serve to make the EU more resolute in getting this Irish border commitment legally binding.

Mr Gove said that whatever relationship the UK prime minister might sign up to with the EU now, that could be altered in the future.

What to watch out for in Salzburg

All that said, don't rush to dismiss Salzburg altogether. The tone and mood there will be important.

Theresa May will address EU leaders at dinner on Wednesday night.

They are not allowed to negotiate with her - the European Commission has the sole negotiating role for the EU - but it's a valuable opportunity to tell European peers what she needs from them to secure a deal; not only in Brussels, but considering all the political complications in Westminster, at home too.

After the prime minister leaves Salzburg on Thursday, the 27 EU leaders will discuss Brexit amongst themselves.

Their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, will kick off proceedings with an update on negotiations so far.

Each EU leader is then expected to give their thoughts on the Irish border, as well as the current deadlock between the UK and EU and possibly ways to break it.

This is key.

image copyrightReuters
image captionMichel Barnier (C) has sought to "de-dramatise" the Irish border issue

Downing Street rejects the European Commission's Irish border backstop proposal, which would keep Northern Ireland in the European customs union and parts of the single market.

The government says that would break up the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.

The Commission has been working since the summer on changing the language of its backstop to "de-dramatise" it and to show, says Brussels, that its proposal is practical - involving minimal customs checks - and not political at all.

The Commission also proposes heavy emphasis on the fact that the backstop is the worst-case scenario, fallback position that neither the EU nor the UK ever want to use.

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EU sources tell me that could be written prominently in the political declaration on the UK-EU post-Brexit relationship which will accompany the UK's exit agreement as part of the aimed-for autumn deal.

Leaders will discuss that non-legally-binding political declaration in Salzburg - how detailed it should or should not be on Ireland, on customs, security and much more.

Still, as an informal summit, no formal written conclusions will be published in Salzburg.

Brexit-process cynics may groan to hear they'll have to wait till the next EU leaders' summit in October for meat on all those bones.

Unlike Salzburg, the October meeting in Brussels is a formal summit and - unlike Salzburg - it comes after the Conservative Party Conference.

So, in theory, both the EU and Theresa May are expected to be in a position to reach some big decisions.

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