BRUSSELS • European Union leaders could hand British Prime Minister Theresa May an olive branch in deadlocked Brexit negotiations next week by launching their own preparations for a transition to a new relationship with Britain.
Draft conclusions submitted by summit chairman Donald Tusk to the 27 other EU governments have made final Brussels' rejection of opening free trade talks now.
But they also gave the beleaguered Mrs May hope that they would do so in December - and that, if she raises her offers on divorce terms, the EU will be ready to start talking almost right away.
Nerves, already frayed amid threats that Britain could walk out without a deal come the March 2019 deadline for departure, took a further knock on Thursday when EU negotiator Michel Barnier said a new round of talks this week had ended in continued deadlock over a British refusal to clarify how much it will pay on leaving.
However, hopes were lifted on word that, despite the tough demands from EU governments on what they want from London, the EU is ready to talk about how to avoid a "hard Brexit" and to ease Britain out with less disruption - probably by agreeing to keep it in the single market for a couple of years, diplomats said.
The draft of conclusions which would be issued by leaders of the bloc next Friday, a day after meeting Mrs May in a full EU summit, still have to be agreed.
Envoys, including from heavyweights Germany and France, objected last week to a suggestion from Mr Barnier that the EU should start working on transition plans. But yesterday, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert urged Britain to move the Brexit talks forward, warning that "time is running out" for London to negotiate the deal it wants.
EU officials noted that Mr Tusk, the European Council president, had sounded out most national leaders in recent days. He briefed Mrs May on his preparations on Thursday.
A senior EU official closely involved in the negotiations said Brussels did not expect major changes to the summit text.
The first version, seen by Reuters, confirms what Mr Barnier and others have been saying this month: that there is not "sufficient progress" on three key elements of a withdrawal treaty for leaders to agree now to open the trade talks Mrs May wants.
But in an effort to defuse accusations in Britain about EU intransigence, the bloc's leaders would welcome progress to date on their three key issues: the rights of three million EU citizens in Britain; protecting peace in Northern Ireland from the effect of a new border on the island; and Britain's outstanding payments.
They would pledge to reassess things at their next summit in mid-December. Mr Barnier had on Thursday said progress would be made in the next two months.
And in order not to waste time once they do decide to launch talks on a post-Brexit future, they would ask their envoys to start preparing now for a transition - albeit without actually starting talking to Britain about it.
"The European Council invites the Council (Article 50) together with the Union negotiator to start internal preparatory discussions," the draft read.
Another EU official said that would help to avoid a delay in launching a new phase by the new year - something business leaders have said is vital if they are to make informed investment decisions for the time after Brexit.