UK PM May dives into diplomacy in bid to clinch Brexit deal

Prime Minister Theresa May steps up attempts to court European support for a Brexit deal on Thursday as negotiations on securing a smooth British divorce from the world’s biggest trading bloc enter their final stages.

She will meet three other EU leaders in Brussels at a NATO dinner on Thursday and have lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday.

EU officials and diplomats tried to play down speculation on an imminent deal after an Austrian newspaper report that a deal could be reached “in the coming days” sent the pound higher.

“Parts of the withdrawal agreement still require further negotiation, in particular the issue of avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland,” an EU document said on Thursday before the bloc’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier debriefs national ministers on Monday.

Some diplomats said they felt more optimistic than earlier in the week about seeing a deal completed this month. But one senior EU official told Reuters: “A deal is certainly not done. There’s a bit of progress on the backstop but we’ve no idea if it will fly in London. Both sides are still talking, which is good, but we haven’t been told that a deal is imminent.”

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, whose country insists on a “backstop” clause to avoid disruption on its land border with the British province of Northern Ireland, said “not by a long shot” should an imminent breakthrough be taken for granted.

Even a deal among May and her fractious ministers would not necessarily mean the EU would fall in line, he said.

For their part, British officials also suggested agreement was drawing nearer but not quite imminent. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said to get a deal within seven days was “probably pushing it” and a government source said May would probably not gather her cabinet until next week.

Nonetheless, with both sides believing a deal must be done in the coming weeks to ensure a smooth withdrawal in March, talks have become intense. May’s interior minister Sajid Javid said: “Clearly we’re in the closing stages ... The next few days, the next couple of weeks, they will be very important.”

Speculation of an imminent deal, after months of deadlock over trade arrangements to keep the Irish border open, mounted as May’s office announced she would meet several European leaders over a NATO dinner in Brussels on Thursday.

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