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Is the UK finally close to agreeing a Brexit deal?

Theresa May beginning critical 48-hour summit with plea to EU leaders

Theresa May will today call on EU leaders to “evolve” their negotiations as the member states meet over dinner at the start of a 48-hour summit in Salzburg. 

The prime minister’s key message will be that her team could never accept a “backstop” that resulted in Northern Ireland having different customs arrangements to the rest of the UK. But May’s plans for a long informal debate between her and the other EU27 leaders in the Austrian city have been “thwarted”, reports The Sun.

According to the newspaper, EU Council president Donald Tusk has “shut down any debate with the table”, by insisting that May is given just ten minutes to make a brief personal pitch. The other leaders will then discuss their response without her.

The news comes after the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, told reporters in Brussels last night that the Brexit talks were on the “home straight”.

However, Barnier made clear that the EU’s proposal will put a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK - despite May’s fears that it would risk splitting the union.

The PM is standing equally firm, insisting in an article in German newspaper Die Welt today that she will not budge over the issue.

“Neither side can demand the unacceptable of the other,” she writes, whether that be erecting “an external customs border between different parts of the United Kingdom - which no other country would accept if they were in the same situation - or the UK seeking the rights of EU membership without the obligations”.

With both sides digging in, “the assumption that an eleventh-hour deal will be clinched is predicated - on both sides - on the firm belief that the other will capitulate on the backstop question”, says The Daily Telegraph’s Peter Foster.

Barnier and his team “have been working since the summer on changing the language of its backstop to ‘de-dramatise’ it and to show, says Brussels, that its proposal is practical - involving minimal customs checks - and not political at all”, reports BBC Europe editor Katya Adler.

But former Brexit secretary David Davis today dismissed suggestions that the EU would compromise over May’s Chequers plan. Davis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Brussels was just offering “warm words” designed to prevent the British PM being overthrown. “They will want to make her life possible,” he said.

Irish PM Leo Varadkar appears to share that opinion, telling reporters in Dublin last night: “As things stand, we are planning for a situation in 2021 where there will need to be east-west checks and controls, though not between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”

“Make no mistake then, all the noises from the EU27 are that they are not backing down,” concludes Politico’s Jack Blanchard.

“[May] is going to have to climb down on this,” a senior European figure told the news site. “Whatever she comes back with, I don’t see how you will call it Chequers. It is not going to look much like Chequers.”

Barnier will formally unveil the new backstop text next month, though the changes “may not be enough for the UK”, predicts The Times.

The newspaper says the EU27 are “likely” to use the October European Council summit to issue new negotiating directives to Barnier, ahead of the final scheduled summit, on 13 and 14 November, when both sides hope a deal will be agreed.

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