Donald Tusk, President of the EU Council, says that reports of Brexit deadlock 'have been exaggerated'
EU hopes to open Brexit trade talks in December
Britain achieved a breakthrough in the Brexit process on Friday after EU chief Donald Tusk said that he hopes to move into the second phase of talks in December, dealing with trade relations.
Speaking at a news conference at the end of a two-day summit, the EU Council President said that the other 27 EU leaders had agreed to start internal preparations to unlock the next phase of negotiations, which would focus on a future trade deal with Britain once it leaves the bloc in 2019.
He reiterated the message on Twitter, saying: "Leaders green-light internal EU27 preparations for 2nd phase."
By starting work on this now, Britain and the EU 27 could start such trade negotiations at the end of the year, provided a December summit agrees that enough progress has been made on three key divorce issues — Britain's exit bill, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and citizens' rights.
Mr Tusk added that reports of a deadlock in Brexit talks had been "exaggerated" and that there has been progress on reaching a deal.
"My impression is that reports of the deadlock between the European Union and the UK have been exaggerated, and while progress has not been sufficient, it does not mean there is no progress at all," he said.
The comments will be welcomed in Britain, where concerns have been rising over the apparent stalemate in the Brexit talks. Prime Minister Theresa May has been anxious to push the negotiations in Brussels beyond a discussion of a divorce settlement and onto trade talks, with just 17 months to go until the country is due to leave the EU.
On Thursday, Mrs May asked her EU counterparts over dinner in Brussels to help her quell calls in Britain for her to walk out of deadlocked talks on a divorce settlement by giving assurances they expect to get to a deal in the coming weeks.
They obliged with some long-anticipated language in a formal statement.
But perhaps as important for the Conservative leader, under fire from party rivals over her efforts to ease Britain gently out of the EU in 2019, were markedly upbeat remarks from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and images, much reproduced in British media, of Mrs May engaged in animated, friendly conversation with Ms Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
EU leaders have said that the differences over issues including the rights of citizens living in each other's regions have narrowed and that there is progress on the question of the border between the United Kingdom and Ireland.
However, differences remain far wider on the issue of how much Britain will have to pay to settle previous financial commitments before it leaves the EU.
Mrs May again refused to detail how much she is willing to pay of the around 60 billion euros that Brussels is demanding. Instead, she said that a final figure would depend on what future relationship is negotiated - and urged the EU to move ahead and open talks on a post-Brexit free trade pact.
Ms Merkel said she hopes Brexit talks can move on in December from these preliminary divorce issues to include future relations like trade, but it depends very much on Britain.
"We hope that by December we have moved along enough to allow phase two to begin but that depends on the extent to which Great Britain makes progress so that we can say that it is sufficient on the core themes of phase one," Ms Merkel told a news conference at the end of the summit.
"In this the financial settlement is the most prominent theme," she added.
Meanwhile, Mrs May said both sides were within "touching distance" on citizens' rights but still had more work to do on settling the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and agreeing on an exit bill for Britain before moving into the second phase of talks, which Britain badly wants.
She said: "I am ambitious and positive for Britain's future and for these negotiations. But I know we still have some way to go. We must work together to get to an outcome that we can stand behind and that works for all our people."