The British prime minister was given just 10 minutes to address leaders over dinner. She said negotiations would not be extended and a deal was needed in the next two months.
May called for a re-think from the EU on the Irish border problem – just hours after European Council President Donald Tusk said the British plan needed to be “reworked”.
The leaders of Lithuania and Slovakia said after the dinner that “no progress” had been made. The 27 member states are due to discuss the issue on Thursday.
Theresa May headed to Salzburg on Wednesday with encouraging words from the European Union’s chief negotiator ringing in her ears.
Michel Barnier had said he was "ready to improve" his offer on the Irish border. The issue of how to keep open the UK’s only land frontier with the EU – and safeguard a 20-year peace deal in a historically volatile region – has been a sticking point in the Brexit talks.
Before the summit, the British prime minister said the UK and the EU were nearing a divorce deal but called on the bloc to show “goodwill and determination” to avoid a disruptive and highly damaging end to the 45-year marriage.
The pressure on the whole process is reaching a new intensity as the clock ticks towards the UK’s exit from the EU at the end of next March.
The informal gathering in Austria is unlikely to bring concrete results – but both sides see a chance for progress ahead of crucial forthcoming EU summits. October was the original deadline for a withdrawal deal to be struck in order to allow time for the ratification process, although Tusk has now confirmed that a special summit will be convened on Brexit in November.
The Sound of Brexit
The prime minister’s message ahead of Salzburg was upbeat – lined with an appeal to the EU to be ready to compromise.
“We are near to achieving the orderly withdrawal that is an essential basis for building a close future partnership,” May wrote in an article for Germany’s Die Welt newspaper. “To come to a successful conclusion, just as the UK has evolved its position, the EU will need to do the same.”
She got the chance to bend the ears of EU leaders after dinner at a venue famously used in the film The Sound of Music. It’s the first full gathering of the EU28 since May unveiled her Chequers plan – named after her country residence where it was presented to ministers – in July.
It prompted two ministers to resign and among politicians is opposed by both supporters and opponents of Brexit.
Many in May’s Conservative Party believe her "soft Brexit" proposal for a combined customs territory and a common rulebook on trade in goods leaves the UK in a weak position and too entangled with EU rules. On Thursday Tory MP Sir Mike Penning, once a May supporter, described the plan as being “as dead as a dodo”.
Barnier, mandated by EU leaders to conduct negotiations, has called Chequers a starting point but not an end deal. Brussels has baulked at May’s proposals for a future customs arrangement and for Northern Ireland.
Reports have suggested the former may be fudged as part of a political declaration on future ties. But the latter must be dealt with as part and parcel of the withdrawal accord.
Untying the Irish knot
How to avoid border checks, involving the return of physical infrastructure for customs and standards when the UK leaves the EU’s single market and customs union, remains unresolved. The EU is insisting on a legal “backstop” — a kind of insurance policy — where Northern Ireland would stay aligned with the EU in key areas. The UK is resolutely opposed to creating a new border in the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from mainland Britain.
May reiterated this stance in her German article. “Neither side can demand the unacceptable of the other, such as an external customs border between different parts of the United Kingdom – which no other country would accept if they were in the same situation,” she wrote.
A Downing Street source quoted by Reuters said the prime minister would use the Salzburg summit to insist that an agreement must respect her country’s integrity, “which the Commission’s proposal does not”.
On Tuesday Barnier said the bloc was prepared to be flexible, explaining that he wanted to “de-dramatise” the border issue.
“We are ready to improve this proposal," the chief negotiator said.
"Work in the EU is ongoing. We are clarifying which goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked, where, when and by whom… We can also clarify that most checks can take place away from the border, at the company premises or in the market.”
The Northern Irish party that props up May’s minority government in parliament dismissed Barnier’s comments. The deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Nigel Dodds, said the EU was still set on an unacceptable separation of Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
"This solution that the EU has put forward just now, we already know that's unacceptable to the UK: they don't want any kind of checks on this border, but at the same time earlier in the year they refused to let Northern Ireland stay in the customs union and single market because they don't want a border down the Irish Sea. So I don't think this really takes us anywhere, we're still stuck in a pattern of deadlock on this," Euronews' London correspondent Vincent McAviney told Good Morning Europe on Wednesday.
Several other analysts, including correspondents from the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and Politico, also suggest the softer mood music from Barnier is more about style than substance, arguing that the EU’s fundamental position remains unchanged.
Hang on to nurse for fear of something worse
Reports suggest that EU officials are keen not to appear too hostile to May, or box her into an even more entrenched position — aware that she faces a daunting task to placate many doubters within her ruling Conservative Party, and to persuade a reluctant parliament to back a deal.
Worse, they may fear, would be for May to fall — creating a political void or bringing a new leader like the hard Brexiteer and EU bogeyman Boris Johnson.
Looming ever larger is the spectre of a “no deal” scenario — something that many Brexit supporters say could be tolerated, even welcomed by some — but which is widely seen by many economists and business people as catastrophic.
On Tuesday German carmaker BMW said it planned to bring forward its annual maintenance shutdown period for its British Mini plant, in case there is no deal.
It was just one example of the huge challenges now bearing down on the British prime minister — not only with the EU, but amid an increasingly volatile political and economic situation at home.
This article originally published on Wednesday has been updated to take account of developments in Salzburg.