Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, currently holds the rotating presidency of the European institution, which gives him significant procedural clout in setting the agenda for summits and meetings of the bloc’s ministers.
Speaking at a press conference in Vienna on Thursday, Mr Kurz said he would be “in favour of pursuing negotiations rather than have a hard Brexit”.
“Our goal is to reach an agreement” on the Irish border, he said, but “if that’s not possible we need to avoid a hard Brexit. If not, it’s good to keep negotiating,” the EUobserver reported.
Asked whether he would countenance extend Article 50 talks, he said: “We’ll see.”
Austria took up the rotating presidency of the Council this week following a summit on Friday, and will hold the role during the crucial autumn period during which both the EU and UK have said they want to sign a deal.
Extending Article 50 talks would require the UK to ask for an extension and all 27 EU member states to agree to one. A senior cabinet source said last month that the question of extending the period was not being considered by the British government.
However, last week MPs on the House of Commons Brexit select committee said the Article 50 process should be extended so that parliament should have more time to scrutinise a deal.
The practicalities of extending the period are not straightforward due to European Parliament elections scheduled for May 2019, which Britain would be legally bound to participate in.
There could also be a knock-on effect with the end date of the Brexit transition period, which officials already worry could be too short, and which might have to be renegotiated.
A number of Tory eurosceptics in Westminster have also said they would not tolerate an extension of talks.
The EU has made some preparations for the possibility of talks being extended, drawing up fallback protocol for allocating seats in the European Parliament should the UK remain in the bloc by the next set of elections.
National leaders also resolved at the most recent European Council meeting last week to prepare for all eventualities in the Brexit talks – though this has mostly been interpreted as a reference to no deal at all.
Brexit negotiations are currently in a state of limbo while Theresa May’s cabinet decides what its policy is on the Northern Ireland border backstop, and what the trade relationship between the UK and EU should be after Britain leaves.
As things stand, if there is no deal the UK will drop out of the bloc automatically in March with no support – a situation that would widely be expected to cause huge economic damage. The EU says a deal needs to be signed by October in order for it to be ratified and scrutinised in time for the March departure date.
Speaking at the European Parliament in Strasbourg earlier this week, Mr Kurz said he saw it as his duty to maintain the unity of the EU27 in the face of Britain’s attempts to divide them.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies