Jean-Claude Juncker mimics Theresa May's dance moves as Downing Street plays down hopes of Brexit agreement
DOWNING Street has played down expectations of agreement on Britain's withdrawal from the EU at a crunch summit next week, warning that "big issues" remain to be resolved.
Theresa May's official spokesman said further concessions were needed from the EU side, and warned that no withdrawal agreement could be sealed without a "precise" declaration about the post-Brexit relationship.
The comments appeared to pour cold water on upbeat assessments on the prospects of a deal made by senior EU figures over recent days.
Just over a week remains before the October 18 summit in Brussels which was initially pencilled in as the deadline for agreement on withdrawal.
But Downing Street would say only that the UK was working for a deal "this autumn", fuelling speculation that a special summit in November will be needed to hammer out agreement on issues including the status of the Irish border.
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Technical talks are continuing at official level in Brussels this week, but no visit by Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has been announced, and Downing Street would say only that new proposals on the border issue would be released "in due course".
The Prime Minister's spokesman told a Westminster media briefing: "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.
"There can be no withdrawal agreement without a precise future framework."
The spokesman said the "meaningful vote" promised to MPs would cover not only the withdrawal agreement but also the political declaration on future relations.
His insistence that the terms of the declaration must be "precise" appear designed to allay the concerns of some MPs that EU leaders may agree only a vague form of words containing no real commitments about the future relationship.
In this so-called "blind Brexit" scenario, MPs fear that they may be asked to approve the withdrawal agreement, including a £39 billion financial settlement by the UK, as well as guaranteed rights for expats and a new arrangement for the Irish border, without having any clear idea of future EU-UK relations in areas like trade and security.
Hopes that a withdrawal deal can be completed within weeks were fuelled this weekend by comments from Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney, who insisted that both sides were 90% there.
Mr Coveney's assessment was substantially more optimistic than the 75%-80% figure previously used by the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
European Council president Donald Tusk said last week that the EU was trying for an accord in October and he believed it could be agreed by the end of the year.
And European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said on Saturday that he believed the "rapprochement potential" between the two sides had increased in recent days.
"My assumption is that we will reach an accord which will achieve the conditions of the withdrawal treaty," Mr Juncker told the Austrian media.
"But it can not be foreseen whether we will finish in October. If not, we'll do it in November."
Mr Juncker today appeared to mimic Mrs May's Conservative conference dance steps- when she entered to the sound of Abba's Dancing Queen - as he gave a speech to the EU Regions Week in Brussels.
Mr Juncker's spokesman Margaritis Schinas later insisted the commission president had "great respect" for Mrs May.
Writing on Twitter, Mr Schinas said Mr Juncker's dance moves were "not directed at anyone" but were an "improvisation on the moment as the music kept playing before he could start his speech".
Quoting from Abba's Thank You For The Music, Mr Schinas quipped: "Without a song or a dance what would our life be?"
Reports suggest that Mrs May hopes to break the deadlock over the Irish border by keeping the EU's present customs arrangements beyond when the transition period is due to end in December 2020.
Anti-EU Tory MPs have made it clear to the PM that this option could last no longer than the slated general election in 2022, according to The Times.
The PM's spokesman said that she had always made clear that any joint customs arrangements with the EU would be "temporary", and stressed that this remained the case.
The new proposals promised by Mrs May following last month's Salzburg summit related to regulatory elements of the future arrangements for the border, he said.
Leaders of the 27 remaining EU states are due to gather in Mrs May's absence on October 17 for an eve-of-summit briefing from Mr Barnier at which he is expected to deliver his assessment of whether a deal is within reach.
Meanwhile, business leaders have said reaching a Brexit deal is critically important for Northern Ireland.
They met European negotiators in Brussels today for "useful and constructive" discussions lasting two hours.
Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ann McGregor said: "It is clear that no-deal is bad for Northern Ireland businesses, consumers and future job creation."
The delegation of Northern Ireland businesses was invited to Brussels by Task Force 50 (TF50) to discuss their version of the border backstop and to have a technical conversation about what this means for businesses who trade throughout the UK, into the EU and internationally.
Task Force 50 is the organisation conducting the EU's negotiations with the UK.
The backstop is to be introduced if no deal if struck between the EU and UK and has been interpreted by Europe as meaning Northern Ireland continuing to follow EU rules on trade to prevent imposition of a hard border.
The Prime Minister and her DUP allies are opposed to any proposal which would see Northern Ireland's regulations diverge from those in the rest of the UK, in effect creating trade barriers within the UK.
The British government is expected to table fresh proposals in an effort to break the deadlock soon.
Ms McGregor said: "We had a good constructive conversation and TF50 were able to answer many of our questions.
"We left with some things to think about and challenged TF50 to look at certain areas."
She added: "We need to see a deal in place and we urge the negotiators on both sides to use the limited time ahead to reach a deal that works not only for the EU and the UK but - critically - for Northern Ireland."
Northern Ireland businesses and business representative groups who met with the task force were from agri-food, manufacturing, retail, construction, pharma, freight and services.
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium which represents large traders like Tesco, tweeted: "Useful discussions with the EU Task force 50 at their invitation.
"Gives us a much better understanding of EU position on backstop.
"Now we need clarity from UK govt. Backstop is better than no deal."