Brexit: Coveney says deal possible this week as EU seeks UK concessions
Johnson coming under pressure to concede more ground to Brussels as talks resume
Speaking on Monday morning, Mr Coveney said: “A deal is possible, and it’s possible this month, may even be possible this week. But we’re not there yet.”
“The message I would give is that we need to be cautious, this is not an easy job, we spent three years trying to get an agreement between the two sides that have made progress at different times, but certainly the last number of months have been difficult,” Mr Coveney said.
Time is rapidly running out if there is to be an agreement to put to EU leaders to sign off on at their two-day summit starting on Thursday.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said “technical-level” talks between officials over the weekend had proved “constructive”.
But in a briefing to ambassadors of the remaining EU27 on Sunday in Brussels, he said that “a lot of work remains to be done”.
The BBC reported that the UK has dropped a demand that the deal should include a veto for the Stormont Assembly.
However, DUP MP Jim Shannon this weekend added his voice to opposition to the proposed compromise involving Northern Ireland remaining legally part of the UK customs union but in practice operating as an EU customs territory.
Mr Shannon said the proposed “double customs” solution would not work because it would treat Northern Ireland “differently” to Britain.
“It is simple. Are we being treated the same as England? No, we are not. Therefore, if we are not being treated the same as England, then we are not going to accept it,” he said.
Earlier, Mr Johnson told senior ministers that, while a “pathway” to a deal could still be seen, there was “still a significant amount of work to get there”.
In a cabinet conference call, he said they still had to be prepared to leave on Halloween without a deal.
The sticking point remains the issue of the Northern Ireland backstop intended to guarantee there is no return of a hard Border with the Republic.
Mr Barnier was reported to have raised concern about the complexity of a British plan to keep Northern Ireland in the UK customs territory while avoiding the need for border controls.
There were reported doubts about the feasibility of the scheme which was said to involve tracking goods as they move through Northern Ireland and then determining the tariff to be paid depending where they end up.
It raised the prospect that negotiations could carry on after this week, with the possibility of an emergency EU summit at the end of the month to finally approve any 11th hour agreement.
However if Mr Johnson cannot get a deal by the weekend, he will come under intense pressure to seek a further Brexit delay, something he has vowed not to do.
Labour however has warned that if necessary it will take action through the courts to force him to comply with the so-called Benn Act which requires to request an extension.
Either way, the stage is set for a major Commons showdown when the prime minister returns to Westminster for an emergency Saturday sitting of parliament, the first in 37 years.
If he cannot get a deal, he is widely expected to blame MPs for cutting the ground from under him, laying the ground for a “people versus Parliament” general election.
If he is able to get an agreement, UK government sources have said they will seek to rush through legislation to ratify it in time for the promised Halloween withdrawal date.
Some opposition MPs have signalled they could support an agreement if there was a requirement to put it to the public in a confirmatory referendum.
However, UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn indicated he had little enthusiasm for the idea.
“I think many in Parliament, not necessarily Labour MPs but others, might be more inclined to support it (if there was a referendum) even if they don’t really agree with the deal. But I would caution them,” he said.