Speaking to leaders of the 27 remaining EU states in Brussels last night, Mrs May said she remains “confident” that a good outcome can be reached to negotiations which stalled at the weekend over the intractable issue of the Irish border.
Mrs May did not produce new “concrete proposals” on the border issue which European Council President Donald Tusk says are needed to break the deadlock.
But a senior European leader said she had shown willingness to look into the possibility of extending the proposed 21-month transition period following Brexit to three years. European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said: “Both sides mentioned the idea of an extension of the transition period as one possibility which is on the table and would have to be looked into.”
An EU official later said Mrs May had indicated she was “ready to consider” a longer transition period, during which the UK would remain subject to EU rules without having a say in them.
EU leaders made clear they were expecting no breakthrough at the European Council summit, which had long been billed as the “moment of truth” when agreement was needed to allow time for ratification before Brexit day in March.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said that “much more time” was needed to bridge differences between the two sides, and promised to “continue the work in the next weeks calmly and patiently”.
A number of EU leaders voiced their willingness to work for an orderly UK withdrawal. But several also noted that their countries were beginning preparations for a possible no-deal Brexit.
In her 20-minute address, Mrs May stressed that significant progress had been made in many areas of the negotiations and urged them to find a “creative” way out of the current dilemma.
“We have shown we can do difficult deals together constructively,” the PM said. “I remain confident of a good outcome.” And she told them: “The last stage will need courage, trust and leadership on both sides.”
Following her comments, Mrs May left for a fish dinner at the UK ambassador’s residence, leaving the EU leaders to discuss Brexit in her absence over a dinner of pan-fried mushrooms, turbot cooked in wheat beer and a trio of fig, pear and grape sorbets.
Arriving in Brussels, Mrs May insisted there had been “very good progress” since Salzburg, but acknowledged that differences remain over the key issue of the “backstop” arrangement to keep the Irish border open in the absence of a broader trade deal.
She said: “I believe everybody around the table wants to get a deal... I believe a deal is achievable and now is the time to make it happen.”
Mrs May held separate talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as Mr Tusk, in what British officials characterised as “constructive and serious conversations”.
French President Emmanuel Macron said that he came to Brussels with a message of both confidence and urgency. He said: “Lots of things have been done, but we must now accelerate the work.
A senior Tory MP hit out at “shroud-waving” EU negotiators as he claimed a hard Irish border will not materialise as no-one wants to build it.
Julian Lewis, chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, pressed Mrs May to ask who would construct such a border the next time it is raised as a prospect by Brussels.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Lewis said: “The next time shroud-waving EU negotiators claim a hard border is necessary on the island of Ireland, will she kindly ask them who would actually construct it? The Irish certainly won’t, the British certainly won’t, so unless the EU army plans to march in and build it, it surely can never happen.”