Theresa May is edging towards securing a new withdrawal settlement with the EU amid intense negotiations with both Brussels and her Northern Irish political partners.
While a deal on the first ‘withdrawal phase’ of Brexit negotiations was not confirmed on Thursday night, The Independent understands the UK is on the brink of securing broad approval for a final text.
In a sign of progress, officials scheduled European Council President Donald Tusk to make a statement on Friday morning, while Brussels confirmed Ms May had spoken to the European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker.
Downing Street are unwilling to speak publicly about any progress until a deal is completely locked in, after being burnt by the Northern Irish DUP’s public torpedoing of her previous effort to secure a settlement. One UK Government source said: “We’re not there yet.”
But sources close to Mr Tusk indicated he had agreed to a final text, something which prompted him to set up his statement on Friday.
Meanwhile, members of the European Parliament are also due to meet on Friday to discuss the matter.
Mr Juncker’s spokesman Margaritis Schinas said the Commission President had a telephone conversation with Ms May on Thursday evening and added that an early morning meeting was “possible”.
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He tweeted: “We are making progress but not yet fully there. Talks are continuing throughout the night.”
The Independent understands that Ms May’s Europe advisor Olly Robbins has been in constant contact with Sabine Weyand, who works for the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, to agree the final wording of the settlement – specifically around the vexed issue of what will happen to the Irish border.
Ms May had been hoping to make a new offer by Friday on the border to satisfy both Ireland and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her Government.
A mooted agreement between the UK and EU on divorce issues including the Irish border, which would allow talks to progress to the future trade relationship, was blocked on Monday by the DUP.
The party objected to plans for “regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Republic to maintain a soft border between the two, arguing it would amount to the drawing of a new frontier with the UK mainland in the Irish Sea.
But as efforts to cement a withdrawal deal continued on Thursday, a senior Irish official said: “It is moving quite quickly at the moment. Negotiations are continuing.
“I think we are going to work over the next couple of hours with the UK Government to close this off. I say hours because I think we are very close.”
The DUP’s chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “Discussions are ongoing.”
Pressure is mounting on Ms May to see that leaders of the EU 27 member states declare at a European Council summit on December 14 that “sufficient progress” has been made on withdrawal issues to pave the way for trade talks to begin.
If she cannot show that progress on trade is being made by Christmas, business chiefs are warning that companies will activate contingency plans that will cost Britain jobs.
Ms May’s own position will also be put under greater pressure, with rebels in her own party having stated that progress in talks is a key test for her continued leadership.