Theresa May has issued a direct plea to EU leaders to clear the way for a Brexit deal which she can sell to British voters.
After coming under growing pressure from hardline eurosceptics in her own party to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, the Prime Minister told leaders of the remaining 27 states at a Brussels summit that they face a “clear and urgent imperative” to give new impetus to stalled negotiations if they are to get an outcome which is acceptable to both the British public and their own people.
The EU27 will declare on Friday that insufficient progress has been made in withdrawal negotiations for trade talks to begin as Britain wants, with several leaders making clear they want more “clarity” about how much the UK is willing to pay in its Brexit “divorce bill”.
But they are expected to offer Mrs May a glimmer of hope by agreeing to start internal “scoping” work on their trade stance ahead of a possible green-light for the second phase of negotiations, dealing with trade and the transition to Brexit, at their next gathering on December 14-15.
German chancellor Angela Merkel gave the PM a Brexit boost by indicating there were “encouraging” signs that the EU might be able to “take the work forward and then reach the start of the second phase in December”.
Mrs Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron made a very public show of support for the Prime Minister, engaging her in prolonged conversation, characterised by a senior British source as “very constructive and friendly”, on the way into the European Council summit.
The scenes made a strong contrast with last December, when the PM appeared isolated with no-one to talk to as the leaders gathered round the table.
Addressing her fellow leaders over dinner, Mrs May left no doubt that she needs their help to deliver a deal that is acceptable to British voters.
“There is increasingly a sense that we must work together to get to an outcome we can stand behind and defend to our people,” she said.
Calling for “joint effort and endeavour” to inject momentum into the talks process, she told them: “The clear and urgent imperative must be that the dynamic you create enables us to move forward together.”
A senior UK Government source acknowledged that the summit took place against a “difficult political backdrop” for the PM.
Failure to secure the go-ahead for trade talks this month has fuelled pressure on Mrs May to begin expensive preparations for a “no-deal” Brexit.
And a group of hardline Brexiteers including four Tory former cabinet ministers led by ex-chancellor Lord Lawson signed a joint letter urging her to walk away from talks.
Mrs May acknowledged that formal negotiations between Brexit Secretary David Davis and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier had run into “difficulties” over the summer, and said that the UK was now determined to take a creative and pragmatic approach to moving the process forward.
She said that her keynote speech in Florence last month, in which she committed Britain to meeting financial obligations from its time as an EU member, came after “I took stock, listened to what the people in the UK were saying and what my friends and partners in Europe were saying and I made a step forward”.
And she said that she believed both sides now agreed negotiations were being conducted in a “new spirit”.
Mrs Merkel’s positive comments were echoed by Finnish prime minister Juha Sipila, who said: “I hope we can decide the next phase in December’s meeting, but today we are not in that position.”
And Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was also optimistic of enough common ground being reached by the pre-Christmas summit.
But other leaders indicated that they believe the onus is on Mrs May to make further concessions on the divorce bill, which Brussels sources have put at around 60 billion euro (£53 billion).
The offer made by Mrs May in Florence is believed to amount to just 20 billion euro (£18 billion).
Dutch PM Mark Rutte told the BBC that he phoned Mrs May to say “Theresa, please, make clear what you mean with that … If you do that, we might have some more forward-leaning language”.
He added: “She might get more, if, we would get more on the exit bill.”
Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite said Mrs May needs to “persuade herself to be more realistic”.
And European Parliament president Antonio Tajani said: “Progress so far has not been satisfactory.
“We heard the tone of the speech by Mrs May, but I am still waiting to see the tone of that speech, the more flexible approach, transformed into practical deeds.”