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Thursday 8 September 2017 15.10 BST Last modified on Thursday 8 September 2017 15.16 BST
Theresa May has caused fresh ill will in Brussels after rejecting an invitation to address the European parliament in public, EU sources have said, instead insisting she will only talk to its leaders behind closed doors.
The prime minister had been asked by the European parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, to speak to a full session of the chamber, to explain her position on Brexit.
The parliament will have the power of veto over any withdrawal agreement struck between the UK and the EU. May had said earlier this year that she was in discussions about an appearance.
However, according to senior EU sources, Downing Street has now informed Tajani that May is only willing to talk in private to the leaders of the parliament, rather than face a plenary session of the parliament in full public view.
One EU source said the decision had disappointed a number of key figures in the parliament at a time when the UK is keen to win support among MEPs for its argument that a comprehensive free-trade deal is in the interests of all parties in the negotiations.
May would have followed in the footsteps of Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher if she had faced MEPs in the chamber in Strasbourg.
One EU official said of May’s decision: “This is yet another own-goal.”
Downing Street did not deny that May had turned down an offer to address the EU parliament, but said she would attend a meeting with Tajani and chairs of the political groups in the parliament. “The prime minister has confirmed to President Tajani that she would be happy to address the Conference of Presidents. A date will now be arranged with his team,” a No 10 spokesman said. No date has yet been set for her attendance at the group, which meets approximately twice a month.
Elmar Brok MEP, a German member of the European parliament’s Brexit steering committee, said: “The European parliament remains ready to offer flexible solutions. Why make enemies? It’s ridiculous.”
The development comes as minutes of a meeting of the European commission in Brussels revealed the low opinion held by the EU’s negotiators of the UK Brexit secretary, David Davis.
The minutes show that Brussels was left unimpressed by Davis after the first round of Brexit talks in July. The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, suggested Davis was unwilling to engage fully with the negotiations.
The minutes of a meeting on 13 July, published on Thursday, read: “Winding up the discussion, the president expressed his concern about the question of the stability and accountability of the UK negotiator and his apparent lack of involvement, which risked jeopardising the success of the negotiations.”
The minutes also show that earlier in the meeting, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said Davis was trying to pass responsibility for face-to-face talks on to his officials.
“He observed that the United Kingdom had not yet really engaged in the negotiations or spelled out its positions,” the minutes said. “He noted in this regard that David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, did not regard his direct involvement in these negotiations as his priority and there was also a possibility that he might not be present at the full opening session of the July cycle of talks.”
Davis did attend the talks on 17 July but was heavily criticised for leaving after less than two hours.
In a sign of growing disjuncture between the British government and MEPs, sources in the European parliament said the chamber would vote on a resolution on 2 October in which they were likely to conclude that insufficient progress had been made in the negotiations for talks to widen to look at a future trading relationship between the UK and the EU.
David Cameron, as prime minister, was due to address a meeting of European parliament leaders in Brussels – not the full plenary session – last February, but cancelled as he sought to negotiate a deal with the EU on the renegotiation of the UK’s membership terms ahead of last June’s referendum.