By Ned Simons
Brexit talks enter the crunch phase from today, and with six months to go until the UK is set to leave the EU, a flurry of activity and argument is due to be unleashed.
It comes as Downing Street played down expectations a deal will be reached this month, warning that “big issues” remain to be resolved.
Just over a week remains before the October 18 EU Council summit in Brussels which was initially pencilled in as the deadline for agreement on withdrawal.
It is now seen more likely that a special summit in November will need to be called to reach a deal.
On the domestic front, Tory MPs return to parliament today after their party conference which saw leading Brexiteers, including Boris Johnson, demand Theresa May ditch her Chequers plan.
Labour meanwhile will demand the prime minister give a statement to the Commons to explain the current state of the talks, The Guardian reports.
The tricky issue of how to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland still needs to be solved – and technical talks will continue this week.
The “backstop” plan, proposed by Brussels, would see Northern Ireland staying in the EU customs union while the rest of the UK left.
The British government has rejected this as “unacceptable” as it would create a customs border inside the UK.
Instead, the UK has proposed keeping the entire UK in a “time-limited” customs union with the EU while a final deal is hammered out during a transition period.
DUP leader Arlene Foster is making a three-day visit to Brussels to meet the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier. She has said avoiding a border in the Irish sea is a “red line” for her party.
May needs the support of DUP MPs to maintain a majority in the Commons.
Hopes that a withdrawal deal can be completed within weeks were fuelled this weekend by comments from Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, who insisted that both sides were 90% there.
But the prime minister’s spokesman said on Monday: “We have always said that we are working hard for a deal this autumn and that continues at pace.
“It’s worth me pointing out that there is a difference between people talking optimistically about a deal and a deal, including both a withdrawal agreement and a future framework, actually being agreed.
“There remain big issues to work through and, as the PM has said, this will require movement on the EU side.”
And Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab had initially been reported to be headed to Brussels later this week for direct talks with Barnier. But no visit has been announced.
May’s future as prime minister could be decided before the end of the year, when MPs are asked to asked to approve the deal in a high stakes parliamentary vote.
Hardline Brexiteer Tory backbenchers have warned her they will vote against any deal that resembles Chequers.
Jeremy Corbyn has also said Labour would vote against the proposed deal as it stands and would push for a general election.
SNP Nicola Stugeon said on Sunday that Scotland should get the same backstop deal as Northern Ireland in order to remain in the customs union after Brexit.