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Mixed messages as Brexit talks intensify

As Brexit talks intensify, there is speculation that this week could see significant developments in what has been a protracted and tortuous process.

As ever, of course, no one is making any firm predictions about what could be agreed within the British cabinet or with the EU.

Not for the first time, we are getting mixed signals on the state of play with Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, saying yesterday that a deal to break the deadlock over the Irish border was not close.

His comments came as the cabinet met at Downing Street, with reports indicating that ministers could be called back for a further meeting this week to agree a way forward on the backstop, which has proved a major stumbling block.

Some movement on this point seems to have emerged on Monday after a phone call between Theresa May and Leo Varadkar.

This followed reports over the weekend suggesting Brexit secretary Dominic Raab wanted the right to pull Britain out of the backstop after just three months, something that caused consternation in the Irish government.

In the call, Theresa May raised the possibility of a review mechanism for the backstop.

Mr Varadkar indicated he was open to consider proposals for a review but said it could not involve any unilateral decision to end the backstop.

He has been criticised by Sinn Féin, with Mary Lou McDonald asking if he had 'lost his nerve' at a critical point in the Brexit negotiations.

The Taoiseach has insisted he has committed to nothing but was open to creative solutions to ensure a smooth transition for the UK withdrawing from the EU.

Certainly the idea of a review mechanism appears to have been seized upon by the British government with discussions now boiling down to a customs union backstop which it is suggested would be UK-wide.

Yesterday's cabinet meeting is said to have heard legal arguments on the potential withdrawal from the backstop with the case being made that it should be on a mutual basis.

Clearly, it would not be acceptable for Britain to be able to end the backstop unilaterally but even if it abandons this position, there would remain many unresolved issues.

And even if the British government comes up with a backstop solution this week, the matter still has to go to the European Union.

There is no doubt these are complex issues and pressure is being felt on all sides as the clock runs down on the Brexit date.

Mrs May's message yesterday was that she will not agree to a deal at any cost but she is not in a strong position as she tries to produce a proposal she can present to EU leaders by the end of this month.

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