By Elizabeth Piper and Noah Barkin
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May appealed to European Union leaders to help her silence critics at home by signaling a willingness to break the deadlock in Brexit talks.
Barring a surprise and despite May's plea over a summit dinner in Brussels late on Thursday, the EU will reject British demands for an immediate opening of post-Brexit trade negotiations on Friday and will instead set a target of December for London to improve its offer on a divorce settlement.
But the leaders will make a gesture towards accelerating the process by launching their own preparations for a transition period that May has asked for and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the dinner that she had "absolutely no doubts" that Britain and the EU could get a good result on Brexit.
In choreography that contrasted with images of May standing isolated in Brussels at previous summits, Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were filmed by television cameras engaging the British prime minister in an animated conversation.
In remarks delivered at the end of a dinner of butternut gnocchi and pheasant supreme, May sought to calm fears that Britain will use its departure in March 2019 to undercut the bloc's economy by lowering standards and taxes.
Instead, she asked them to respond in kind to her efforts to break the Brexit stalemate, making clear she was disappointed at their plan to announce on Friday that talks have not yet made enough progress to move on to a discussion of future trade ties.
May underlined the "difficult political background" she faces if she returns home empty-handed and said she had realized at the end of the summer what difficulties the talks were in.
"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," she was quoted as saying by a British official, referring to a speech she made on Sept. 22.
She asked leaders to say, when delivering their verdict on talks so far, that "the clear and urgent imperative must be that the dynamic you create enables us to move forward together".
There was no discussion after she spoke, according to an EU diplomat. Donald Tusk, the chairman of EU leaders, said only that the leaders took note of her comments. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters that she had made no new proposals.
Leaders will say, assuming no last-minute changes to a text agreed by their ministers, that they "welcome" advances made on some issues but that they were not enough.
Weakened after losing her Conservatives' majority in a June election and by failing to rally support at an ill-fated party conference, May needs to keep the talks on the road to silence the voices calling for her to walk away from the negotiations.
The talks have stalled largely over how much money Britain owes when it leaves the bloc, with EU leaders urging May on Thursday to give more detail on how she will settle the bill.
May instead proposed more moves to protect the rights of EU citizens in Britain - one of three issues the bloc says must be settled before moving to discuss a future trading relationship.
After May leaves the summit on Friday morning, the other 27 leaders are due to call on their staff to prepare for talks on the transition period.
That may be enough for May to stave off an attempt by several Brexit campaigners for her to walk away. May's government has ruled out ending the talks, but the prime minister made clear to EU leaders that she "is working against a difficult political backdrop", the government official said.
The official suggested she could not move beyond her offer on the financial settlement that she made in the Florence speech, but said she had referred then to several commitments.
"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 told the leaders, according to the official.
She spoke of a "framework that allows for a close economic partnership that sets rights and obligations in a new and different balance supporting prosperity for all our peoples".
Talk of a shift in rights and obligations would please EU leaders, who have criticized Britain for trying to "have its cake and eat it", retaining access to EU markets without having to follow its rules. They say that Britain will have fewer rights once it shakes off many of its obligations to the EU.
"We should be optimistic and ambitious about what we can achieve," May said. "As we share the same set of fundamental beliefs in free trade, rigorous and fair competition, strong consumer rights and high regulatory standards."
($1 = 0.8449 euros)
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Jan Strupczewski and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)