Taoiseach Enda Kenny and other EU leaders will travel to Brussels later this week for their first European summit encounter with the British prime minister who plans to lead her country out of the union in 2019.
Theresa May will attend her first European Council summit on Thursday and Friday of this week and while Brexit is not on the formal agenda for the talks, it is likely to be discussed informally at the pre-summit dinner on Thursday evening and on the margins of Friday’s meeting.
It is expected that European Council president Donald Tusk will invite Ms May to give her fellow leaders an explanation of her current thinking about Brexit over the leaders’ dinner on Thursday evening.
European leaders were taken aback by the “hard Brexit” positions adopted by Ms May at the recent Tory party conference. However, signals in the past week that the British government may want to maintain single market access for sectors including financial services and car manufacturers have altered that picture.
High-level sources are sceptical that there will be much of a welcome for a British bid to pick and choose which parts of the single market the UK would participate in. Mr Tusk said last week that there was no such thing as a “soft Brexit”; the choice, he said, was between a hard Brexit or no Brexit at all.
As the leader of the EU country with the closest relationship with the UK, the Taoiseach’s role in the emerging relationship between Ms May and the rest of the European Council will be an important one.
However, the Government is wary of being seen as an “interpreter” of British intentions for the EU, with senior officials stressing that Mr Kenny will be raising the key Irish concerns – the Border, the Common Travel Area, trade with the UK and the peace process – on Thursday and Friday.
However, any bid for special status for the North and the British-Irish relationship post-Brexit will only be advanced as part of the formal talks on the exit between the UK and EU. That will only begin next spring when Ms May triggers article 50, the treaty provision for leaving the EU.
However, some officials believe Mr Tusk will seek to convene a summit of the other 27 member states in the coming months to discuss the EU’s approach to the Brexit negotiations.
On the summit’s formal agenda, EU leaders will discuss migration in the Mediterranean, relations with Russia and trade, particularly the proposed EU-Canada trade deal known as CETA.
The regional Walloon Parliament has vetoed the deal, meaning it cannot be ratified by Belgium. This in turn will prevent the EU from ratifying the deal. Both CETA and its US-EU equivalent, the proposed TTIP trade deal, have been criticised by a wide range of campaigners.