Michel Barnier raised hopes a Brexit deal was possible after he welcomed a “constructive” meeting with Steve Barclay and said negotiators would intensify talks.
The EU chief negotiator’s team has also reportedly confirmed that the EU 27 had given Barnier permission to enter the so-called “tunnel”.
This is the final stage before a deal is struck and would see EU and UK diplomats and sherpas have top-secret talks to thrash out details.
Barclay, the UK Brexit secretary, held two-hour talks with Barnier in Brussels on Friday as a compromise between the UK and the EU 27 looked ever more likely.
Some EU sources appeared keen to dampen optimism over final negotiations, however, and Barnier himself sounded a note of caution, noting the “mountain” officials had yet to climb.
After leaving the Brussels meeting, Barnier told reporters: “We had a constructive meeting with Steve Barclay and the British team, and now I’m going to debrief the 27 ambassadors and the Brexit steering group of the parliament.
“I’ve already said that Brexit is like climbing a mountain: We need vigilance, determination and patience.”
A spokesman for the EU Commission said: “The EU and the UK have agreed to intensify discussions over the coming days.
“The EU’s position remains the same: there must be legally operative solution in the withdrawal agreement that avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, protects the all-island economy and the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions, and safeguards the integrity of the single market.”
Barnier’s statement followed comments from EU Council President Donald Tusk who said he had seen “promising signals” from Varadkar over a fresh agreement after the Northern Irish border had remained the sticking point.
Tusk tweeted: “The UK has still not come forward with a workable, realistic proposal. But I have received promising signals from Taoiseach @LeoVaradkar that a deal is possible. Even the slightest chance must be used. A no deal #Brexit will never be the choice of the EU.”
Any deal struck between the UK government and Brussels would still need the approval of MPs in the Commons.
The DUP has yet to make a statement about the talks between Varadkar and Johnson, but it is understood that the PM briefed leader Arlene Foster before the meeting took place.
“I think it is very difficult to get it through without the DUP, but we have seen a shift from the DUP already,” Evans told the BBC in an interview.
“And if the DUP are in favour of it, it’d be very difficult for the ERG to go against.”