No 10 has thrown a fresh obstacle in the way of a Brexit agreement and criticised the EU for being too “optimistic” that a deal will be reached quickly.
He also appeared to toughen up the UK’s requirement for a deal on the future trading relationship – amid fears of a so-called “blind Brexit” – insisting the wording must be “precise”.
At the weekend, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, said the prospects of a deal had “increased in recent days”, ahead of a crucial summit next week.
But, in response, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “It is worth me pointing out that there’s a difference between people talking optimistically about a deal and a deal, including both a withdrawal agreement and the future framework, actually being agreed.
“There remain big issues to work through and, as the prime minister has said, this will require movement on the EU side.
“I will just make that point again that there can be no withdrawal agreement without a precise future framework.”
The biggest obstacle remains the Irish border, with the EU impatient that the UK has yet to put forward proposals that would effectively allow Northern Ireland to remain in the single market indefinitely.
But it is also demanding Ms May drop her insistence that her plan to keep the whole UK within the EU’s customs territory must be temporary, if the “backstop” proves necessary – which the spokesman insisted she would not do.
In a further sign of No 10’s caution about the rate of progress, plans for Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, to hold further talks in Brussels with Michel Barnier, the EU’s negotiator, appear to have been shelved.
Ministers have always insisted that the “future framework” – a non-binding agreement on future trade – must be detailed, if MPs are to sign over the £39bn “divorce bill” in return.
However, it was the first time No 10 had applied the tougher test of “precise” – another major stumbling block, given the EU has comprehensively rejected the prime minister’s Chequers plan.
In the absence of agreed long-term proposals for customs tariffs and access to the single market, it is increasingly likely that the future framework will be vague.
It is only 10 days until the 18 October summit which, for so long, was seen as the deadline in for a withdrawal agreement, to allow ratification in both London and Brussels.
For some time, it has been apparent that an emergency summit in November is the earliest possible date for a deal – but the EU has insisted the UK produce workable proposals on the Irish border by next week.
Privately, Downing Street believes the EU’s optimism is a device to wring further concessions – by creating the expectation that an agreement is near.
Meanwhile, the prime minister faces the wrath of both pro-Brexit Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party if she waters down her stance on the backstop.
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