Green light for second phase of Brexit talks - but slow timetable for trade deal
European leaders are set to give the green light for Brexit talks to move on to their second stage, nine months after Theresa May announced Britain's intention to quit by invoking Article 50.
But the move by the European Council will prove a bitter pill for the Prime Minister, with the leaders of the 27 remaining member states set to approve guidelines which would set a slow timetable for talks on trade.
In a brief address to fellow leaders over dinner in Brussels on Thursday evening, Mrs May stressed her keenness to get on with shaping a "deep and special" future partnership as quickly as possible, leaving no doubt that she believes she is "on course to deliver Brexit" despite the setback of defeat in the Commons.
But the text likely to be rubber-stamped by the EU27 in Mrs May's absence on Friday promises only work towards a "framework" for a trade deal, with a wait until March before guidelines for the way ahead are produced. The document leaves no doubt that a formal free trade agreement cannot be signed until after the UK has left.
First priorities will be to translate last week's agreement on the "divorce" issues of citizens' rights, the Irish border and the UK's £39 billion exit bill into a legally binding Withdrawal Agreement and to work out the terms for a transition period to follow the official date of Brexit in March 2019.
EU leaders said it was for Britain to put forward concrete proposals for the kind of trade deal they want, with Dutch PM Mark Rutte saying Mrs May had so far been "holding her cards close to her heart" but it was now time for her and the UK Government to make clear exactly what relationship they are seeking with the single market and customs union.
Senior ministers are due to have their first discussion of the "end state" relationship Britain is seeking with the EU in a Cabinet meeting next Tuesday which threatens to expose deep divisions between their visions of the UK's future.
Meanwhile, Mrs May is facing a further challenge to her authority next week when MPs vote on a Government amendment to enshrine the Brexit date of March 29 2019 in law.
Amid predictions that the PM is heading for a second defeat, after 11 Tories rebelled on Wednesday to back a successful motion calling for MPs to be given a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal, a senior Government source denied that Mrs May was preparing to dump the provision.
The official also said that "no politician should face intimidation or threats" after rebel ringleader Dominic Grieve reported receiving death threats amid calls from hardline Brexiteers for the deselection of those who voted against the Government.
Mrs May left the EU summit early after dinner on Thursday, leaving her 27 counterparts to discuss Brexit and the future of the eurozone on Friday.