European and UK officials struck an upbeat tone on Friday about the prospect of getting a Brexit deal in the next few weeks, as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said negotiators were working "day and night" to clinch it.
The two sides are hoping to make progress on the thorny issue of the Irish border in time for a summit on October 17 and then seal the agreement a month later. Then it would go to the UK Parliament for approval, where Prime Minister Theresa May faces challenges from across the chamber.
"I’m really focused on getting an agreement," Juncker told the Austrian parliament in Vienna. "The commission, via chief negotiator Michel Barnier, is working day and night, with the Brits and with itself and the member states, to be able to gather enough progress.”
The idea, he said, is to move things along so that by the time EU leaders meet in the second week of October “we have enough in the basket to get it finally done in November.”
Work continues in Brussels today. Good to meet and listen to @moneillsf, @StephenFarryMLA, @columeastwood, and Steven Agnew @GreenPartyNI together to discuss the ongoing #Brexit negotiations and the importance of a legally operative backstop for Northern Ireland. pic.twitter.com/WLDWMlEXYp— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) October 5, 2018
David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, was also upbeat on a visit to Madrid, as was Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney. But both men said some key details still need to be thrashed out.
A key risk to an agreement is the Democratic Unionist Party that props up May’s government in London. They are implacably opposed to any deal that separates Northern Ireland from Britain - and some kind of checks between the two may be needed in order to get a deal that avoids a new border emerging on the island of Ireland.
"We will set out our alternative that preserves the integrity of the United Kingdom and it will be in line with the commitments that we made back in December 2017," Lidington said in Madrid.
The EU is expecting the UK’s new proposal on the Irish border to land next week.
The European Commission already has a good idea what might be in it, and expects to be able to respond to it positively, according to people familiar with the situation. Negotiations will continue this weekend, and Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab is due in Brussels next week.
* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24 NEWSLETTER