Theresa May has been given 10 days to offer further concessions on issues including the Brexit divorce bill and the complex matter of the Northern Irish border if she wants European Union leaders to agree to trade talks.
The Prime Minister hopes a crunch summit in Brussels next month will give the green light to move on to the next stage of the Brexit process, covering future trading arrangements and a possible implementation period to avoid a cliff-edge for businesses.
Talks on trade will not be allowed to begin until European Union leaders are satisfied that “sufficient progress” has been made on the first round of issues being discussed including the divorce bill the UK will pay to Brussels and the Northern Irish border.
After talks with the Prime Minister, European Council president Donald Tusk said it was “possible” sufficient progress could be made at the December summit but remained a “huge challenge”.
“We need to see progress from UK within 10 days on all issues, including on Ireland,” he said.
Theresa May acknowledged there were still issues to be resolved as she emerged from talks in Brussels with key players including Mr Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
She also held talks with Danish premier Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Belgium’s Charles Michel, and Lithuania’s Saulius Skvernelis in the margins of a summit aimed at extending EU cooperation with eastern European states.
As she left a gathering in Brussels, Mrs May said: “There are still issues across the various matters we are negotiating on to be resolved but there has been a very positive atmosphere in the talks and a genuine feeling that we want to move forward together.”
On the border issue, Mrs May is coming under intense pressure from Dublin for fresh assurances that there will be no “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warning that deadlock in Brexit negotiations cannot be broken until the issue is resolved.
The Prime Minister insisted “we have the same desire - we want to ensure that movement of people and trade across that border can carry on as now”.
Earlier, Downing Street backed away from suggestions that Northern Ireland’s continued membership of the EU customs union could be up for negotiation in Brexit talks.
The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had a meeting with the Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney in the margins of the Brussels summit.
He said there was “strong solidarity” with Ireland, adding that “Irish issues are EU issues”.