Barnier says agreement on Brexit is possible 'within six to eight weeks'
Option of Canada-style trade deal but UK 'must provide Irish backstop'
The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said a deal with the UK is possible "within six to eight weeks".
Speaking at the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia yesterday, Mr Barnier's comments renewed optimism that a Brexit deal will be reached.
"If we are realistic, I want to reach an agreement on the first stage of the negotiation, which is the Brexit treaty, within six or eight weeks," he said. "The treaty is clear, we have two years to reach an agreement before they leave ... in March 2019.
"That means that taking into account the time necessary for the ratification process in the House of Commons on one side, the European Parliament and the council on the other side, we must reach an agreement before the beginning of November. I think it is possible."
But, he said, a major sticking point remains managing the Irish Border, where Brussels has said London's proposals to avoid undermining either peace in Northern Ireland or the EU's single market regulations have so far been unrealistic.
Mr Barnier's comments led to a sterling surge against the dollar and euro yesterday as the markets seized on his remarks as signalling that the UK may avoid a no-deal Brexit.
However, there was continued turmoil in Mrs May's Conservative Party, which is said to face a "catastrophic split" if she persists with her proposals on Brexit.
Steve Baker, a former junior minister, made the claim as he said 80 or more of her MPs were prepared to vote against the Chequers proposals.
Mrs May would be forced to rely on Labour for support if that many MPs rebelled against her Brexit plan.
Mr Baker said such a scenario would mean the Conservatives "would suffer the catastrophic split which thus far we have managed to avoid".
A spokesperson for Mrs May said she hoped parliament would support her Brexit plan, which was "the only plan on the table which will deliver on the will of the British people while avoiding a hard Border in Northern Ireland".
Meanwhile, the EU is considering a trade agreement similar to the deal with Canada as one option to form the basis for the post-Brexit relationship with the UK. The proposal, dubbed 'Ceta-plus', is being discussed in Brussels circles.
However EU sources insisted that a trade deal modelled on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada could not happen in the absence of a deal on the so-called Irish backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement.
In today's Irish Independent, Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes revealed the proposal for a "Ceta-plus deal for the UK".
He said it was "something that may provide the kind of alignment and market access that British Prime Minister Theresa May has argued for".
He said that, under the proposal, controls would apply at ports and that both sides were considering how this would work in an Irish context.
He added that the British know they must provide a backstop solution that would avoid a hard Border and said this "is still the circle that must be squared".
The Ceta-style deal is being touted as a possible alternative to Mrs May's Chequers proposals, which are considered by the EU side to be too difficult and complicated to achieve.