THERESA May’s attempts to bypass the Brexit negotiating process and get the leaders of France, Germany and Ireland to advance a trade deal seem to have failed.

The Prime Minister was knocked back by Angela Merkel over the weekend, and her appeal to French president Emmanuel Macron yesterday seems to have had little success.

May wants the European Council summit on Friday to agree to her proposal for a two-year transition period, and to start talking about a future trade deal.

But Europe has, since the triggering of Article 50 earlier this year, insisted there can be no trade deal until there has been “sufficient progress” on the divorce, namely the Irish border, the rights of EU citizens and the settling of the UK’s debts.

Last week, after the fifth round of formal negotiations, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said that progress had not been made and that he could not recommend to the leaders of the 27 remaining European countries who meet this week that the discussions on the future relationship between Britain and the bloc start now.

May’s attempts to override Barnier seem to have fallen flat.

Last night she was in Brussels for a quick, early dinner with Barnier and the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker.

The last time they had met over dinner details were leaked to the press, with some reports quoting Juncker describing May as “deluded”.

Earlier in the day, the president seemed to suggest details of the dinner would be revealed again soon afterwards.

“I’m going to see Mrs May tonight. And, yes, you will have an autopsy report,” Juncker joked with journalists.

The two agreed to "accelerate" efforts to find a Brexit deal, but there was little detail about what that might mean. 

In a joint statement, May and Juncker said that their meeting had been "constructive and friendly".

They said they had had a "broad, constructive exchange" on a range of issues - including the need to preserve the Iran nuclear deal following US President Donald Trump's latest threat to withdraw.
"The Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission reviewed the progress made in the Article 50 negotiations so far and agreed that these efforts should accelerate over the months to come.
"The working dinner took place in a constructive and friendly atmosphere."

The Prime Minister’s problem is that the UK is still unwilling to spell out exactly what it is willing to pay towards the divorce bill.

Brussels is still uncertain how many of the financial commitments previously agreed to by the UK, for things like civil service pensions, will be honoured.

Last week, a leaked statement, drafted by the president of the European Council Donald Tusk, seemed to suggest trade talks could begin in December, but only if there is “sufficient progress” and only if there was agreement from the EU27 on how a transition period would work.

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson hosted senior European politicians from eight member states at his grace-and-favour country house Chevening on Sunday. He said it was in the EU’s interests to “get on” with the talks.

Before a meeting for EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg yesterday, Johnson told reporters: “We think in the UK that it’s time to get on with these negotiations, it is ready for the great ship to go down the slipway and on to the open sea and for us to start some serious conversations about the future and the new relationship, the deep and special partnership we hope to construct.”

Meanwhile, a City lobby group has warned financial firms will start moving staff abroad next year, unless a transition deal can be agreed immeditely.

TheCityUK said the value of a transitional deal is “disappearing by the day”.

The group’s chief executive Miles Celic said: “EU and UK negotiators cannot delay discussing a transitional deal any longer if they want it to hold any real value.

“Firms are beyond the planning stage now. If they haven’t done so already, most will be ready to press go on their contingency plans in the new year.

“They can still take their foot off the accelerator if a transitional deal is agreed, but without progress soon, it may be too late. Once businesses start moving, there is no reverse gear. It is simply not efficient or economically viable to move operations twice.”