Theresa May still faces a "huge challenge" in persuading the EU to move the Brexit negotiations on to discussions about trade and a transition period in December, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has said.
Following a face-to-face meeting with the British prime minister in Brussels on Friday, Mr Tusk struck a sombre note just weeks from a crunch meeting of EU leaders where it will be decided whether "sufficient progress" has been made to allow Brexit talks to move on from the opening issues of citizens' rights, the Irish Border and the financial settlement.
After an hour-long meeting with Ms May in the margins of a summit, Mr Tusk appeared to dash the prime minister’s hopes of a smooth move to wider talks.
He highlighted the problem of avoiding a hard Border, something Dublin believes can only be achieved by keeping Northern Ireland within the single market and customs union. Britain has rejected that solution as an affront to the UK's constitution.
With a key dinner between Ms May and the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, scheduled for December 4th, Mr Tusk said the British government had 10 days to offer a way forward.
“Sufficient progress in Brexit talks at December [European Council meeting] is possible,” Mr Tusk tweeted. “But still a huge challenge. We need to see progress from UK within 10 days on all issues, including on Ireland.”
The Bulgarian prime minister, Boyko Borissov, also confided that he feared talks were heading for a breakdown.
Ms May conceded that there were "still issues across the various matters that we are negotiating on to be resolved" in phase one of the Brexit talks. However, on leaving the summit following bilateral meetings with Mr Tusk, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the leaders of Belgium and Denmark, Ms May insisted there was a "positive atmosphere".
Earlier in the day, Ms May made it clear that she was willing to lay down extra money to meet the EU’s €60 billion divorce bill demands only if the bloc’s leaders could guarantee the widening of talks to trade and the terms of a transition period at the summit in December.
She told reporters: "These negotiations are continuing but what I am clear about is that we must step forward together. This is for both the UK and the European Union to move on to the next stage."
At a meeting of the Brexit subcommittee of the cabinet last week, it was agreed that the UK would offer more in the coming days than the €20 billion put on the table in Florence, in an attempt to move the negotiations on. However, the agreement was struck on the proviso that the EU guaranteed progress on to a second phase of talks at a European council meeting on December 14th and 15th.
The EU member states, however, need to consult their national parliaments – making such a guarantee at the point at which the financial offer is made almost impossible.
The Irish issue
Ms May said that on the Irish issue, both the State and the UK had the same goal, of avoiding a hard Border and that she was talking with Irish officials “about solutions for that”. “We have the same desire, we want to ensure that movement of people and trade across that border can carry on as now,” she said.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney also made it clear, however, that Dublin would not accept "aspirational" commitments to avoid a hard Border but that they needed "parameters of a road map" to that outcome.
He also suggested that the British government had “not been listening”.
Mr Coveney said: “We can’t move to phase two on the basis of aspiration. We have to move to phase two on the basis of a credible road map, or the parameters around which we can design a credible road map ... We need progress on this issue, in the context of the regulatory-divergence issue. And I hope and expect that we can get that by December so we can all move on. If we can’t, then I think there’s going to be difficulty moving on.” – Guardian service