British PM Theresa May tells business leaders EU wants autumn Brexit deal

Theresa May leaves after the ASEM leaders group photo opportunity during a summit in Brussels. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - British Prime Minister Theresa May told business leaders during a teleconference on Friday (Oct 19) that EU politicians are committed to reaching a Brexit agreement this autumn, striking what one source told Reuters was an upbeat tone.

London and Brussels are racing to strike a deal by the end of the year and firms are worried that without one, there could be widespread disruption of everything from supply chains to flights and the movement of food and livestock.

May briefed around 120 business leaders to update them on the progress of the talks after discussions in Brussels earlier this week.

"The Prime Minister spoke for about 10 minutes and the tone of her message was quite optimistic," a source familiar with the content of the call told Reuters.

May's office said the prime minister had acknowledged that there were "a few significant issues" still outstanding but that progress was being made.

"The very real sense she had from leaders around the table at the Council was that they wanted to reach a deal as soon as possible this autumn," May's office said.

"She said that her aim was to wrap this up in November," one of the business people listening to the call said.

May was told by some that time is pressing and heard concerns over contingency measures which may be irreversible, the source added.

She was also asked what business could do to help on Brexit, to which she suggested firms write to lawmakers in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, to make sure leaders were aware that business needed a resolution.

Separately, Bloomberg reported that May was ready to give ground on one of the key sticking areas of the talks concerning the land border between the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Sterling gained on the report that Britain would allow the Northern Ireland backstop, or fallback arrangement in case of failure to agree a broader deal, to have no fixed time limit.

May's office said in response that the government's position had not changed, and pointed to the remarks the prime minister had made to businesses, where she said she expected any backstop arrangement to be temporary.

Britain's Brexit minister, Dominic Raab, said a week ago that the so-called backstop designed to prevent a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, must be finite, short and time-limited.

Brexit supporters in May's government are concerned any temporary arrangements with the EU that lack a clear time limit may become permanent solutions over time.

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