BRUSSELS • The 27 countries staying in the European Union after Britain leaves gave the go-ahead yesterday for their chief negotiator to hold another round of intense and secret negotiations with London in a bid to secure a deal, two senior diplomatic sources said.
Mr Michel Barnier and his British counterpart Stephen Barclay had earlier held what both sides called a "constructive" meeting in Brussels as Britain's scheduled departure date of Oct 31 grew closer.
Their meeting followed a burst of optimism after the British and Irish prime ministers said on Thursday that they had found "a pathway" to a possible deal. The United Kingdom is due to leave the world's biggest trading bloc on Oct 31 and, despite the flurry of activity, it remains uncertain on what terms it will leave, when, and even whether it will do so at all.
"It's a tunnel with a very small light at the end of it," one of the diplomats said, indicating there was not too much hope on the EU side that a divorce deal could be sealed before the end of the month.
No details from the meeting between Mr Barnier and Mr Barclay were immediately disclosed.
"Be patient," Mr Barnier told reporters as he left the meeting and went on to brief the 27 EU states.
"Brexit is like climbing a mountain. We need vigilance, determination and patience."
French President Emmanuel Macron hinted yesterday that the "next few hours" could be crucial regarding the possibility of a breakthrough on a Brexit deal.
Earlier yesterday, in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, European Council president Donald Tusk said he had received "promising signals" from Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar that a deal was still possible. But Mr Tusk tempered this by saying: "Of course, there is no guarantee of success and the time is practically up. But even the slightest chance must be used."
Mr Varadkar told Irish reporters on Thursday after his meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson: "I think it is possible for us to come to an agreement, to have a treaty agreed, to allow the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion and to have that done by the end of October."
Sterling see-sawed on the various pronouncements, which came at the end of a tumultuous week in which Brexit negotiations have shifted wildly, starting with a public row between London and Brussels. Both sides are anxious to avoid taking the blame should the deadline for Britain's departure arrive with no deal secured. The next key date in the fraught process is a summit of EU leaders next Thursday and Friday.