The UK Prime Minister has insisted a deal on the backstop solution for avoiding a hard border in Ireland can be achieved in the coming days and weeks.
Speaking on her way in to the Summit of EU leaders in Brussels this evening, Theresa May said “considerable progress” had been made in the talks since the last time leaders met in Salzburg.
She admitted that there a still differences of opinion on the Irish border issue but insisted that “by working intensively and closely we can achieve that deal.”
She will be addressing the remaining 27 EU leaders at a working dinner this evening, before retiring to the UK ambassador’s residence to allow them to discuss next steps.
“What we will be doing is looking at the issues that we need to address in relation to the backstop on Northern Ireland,” she said.
“I believe it is possible by working together to find a resolution to that issue and a resolution that ensures we can move forward with the full package - with the future partnership as well.
“Considerable progress has been made since Salzburg.
“By working intensively over the next days and weeks I believe we can achieve a deal.
A deal that I believe everybody wants and a deal that is in the interest not just of the EU but also of the EU.”
Mrs May is due to hold a private meeting with the Taosieach Leo Varadkar before tonight's summit.
On his way in this Leo Varadkar said he is willing to listen to any proposals that can bring an end to the deadlock over the Irish border backstop.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says he’s willing to listen to any proposals at today’s EU summit to bring about a solution. On extension to transition arrangement he says it would be difficult to negotiate a trade deal in just 2 years #Brexit pic.twitter.com/79FyqlQvSG
— Sean Defoe (@SeanDefoe) October 17, 2018
Voices within the EU have been playing down the chances of a deal on the border being reached this week, however Mr Varadkar said he is willing to listen to all suggestions.
“Fresh thinking is always welcome but time is now running out,” he said.
“We have always been abundantly clear about what our objectives are and they have been the same since the referendum happened.
“That is that there should be a Withdrawal Agreement that allows for an orderly exit of the UK from the EU [and] there should be an transition period so business and individuals can prepare for the changes that will take place at the end of that transition period.”
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, second left, talks to other European Commissioners at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels | Image: Francisco Seco/AP/Press Association Images
It comes as it emerged the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has opened the door to a possible one-year extension to the Brexit transition period.
The extension would be in return for the agreement of a "two-tier" backstop ensuring a border cannot be imposed in Ireland regardless of the outcome of Brexit.
It is hoped the extension will allay concerns over the backstop - and allow the process to move forward.
Twenty-eight heads of state and government from across the EU will meet on Wednesday evening - including British Prime Minister Theresa May - to review the Brexit negotiations and assess the next steps.
European Council President Donald Tusk touches his eyebrow after delivering a statement during a joint news conference in Brussels on October 16th, 2018 | Image: Francisco Seco/AP/Press Association Images
Mrs May will address the EU27 just ahead of their pre-summit dinner, with UK officials playing down the prospect for any new proposals or breakthroughs.
"The PM set out her position on Monday, Donald Tusk has set out his views and the PM looks forward to face to face discussion," was Downing Street's response to the request from the EU Council President Donald Tusk for "concrete proposals" following the unravelling of a technical deal on Sunday over the issue of the Irish backstop.
Extending the transition period for the UK by an extra year may ease some fears on the British side.
It would mean more time to negotiate a successful trade deal that would avoid a hard border, and making sure there is no need for the backstop to be used at all.
However some in the UK will see it as being tied to the EU for another year, and it raises a number of questions: like would they then have to pay more into the EU budget, or in their divorce settlement.
The Financial Times reported that Mr Barnier is open to a possible one-year extension, should Mrs May accept a "two-tier" backstop.
British Prime Minister Theresa May talks in London | Image: Henry Nicholls/PA Wire/PA Images
With the impasse continuing, diplomats are beginning to expect that a deal might not be complete until December or January - making it very tight to ratify any agreement in domestic parliaments across the EU.
There is also the chance that the EU27 will decide to hold a summit in November to ratchet up preparations for no deal.
The Netherlands and France have already drafted emergency laws to deal with the border, customs and immigration consequences of a no-deal Brexit.
Speaking this morning, the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he believes Mrs May could get a deal on the border across the line without the support of the Democratic Unionist Party.
The party’s 10 MPs are currently propping up the minority conservative government under a confidence and supply arrangement.
The party has threatened to pull the plug on the UK Government if negotiators agree anything that treats Northern Ireland differently to Britain.
“Her speech the day before yesterday is perhaps indicative of a realisation that she may not be in a position to have to depend on the DUP in relation to this Brexit issue,” said Deputy Martin.
“But I would imagine that she will want to bring people with her as much as possible in the British Parliament.
“I think the Scottish position is significant as well in this regard and indeed moderate opinion within the British Labour Party.”
He said the proposed extension could provide British politics with the breathing space it needs to work towards a deal.
“I think the British political system still has a lot to work out in terms of Brexit and so an extension could give that breathing space for people to work out more sensible positions.”
Mr Varadkar is joining Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee, who attended meetings earlier this week in Luxembourg alongside the Tánaiste Simon Coveney.
On Thursday, EU leaders will focus on migration, internal security and external relations.
This will be followed by a Euro Summit on economic and financial issues.
Additional reporting: Sean Defoe in Brussels/IRN