Oettinger confirmed reports that progress was being made on the difficult issue of the border on the island of Ireland. "It does appear possible there will be a breakthrough," he said. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he spoke to May by phone on Friday and added that "we hope that next week at the European summit, if at all possible, the first results emerge."
"I am cautiously optimistic that we can take steps next week but a lot depends on the talks happening in the coming days," Rutte said at his weekly press conference. Even if the negotiators themselves agree on a deal, it is not the end of the matter. The EU leaders must also back the deal and then so must the British and EU parliaments.
May in particular is likely to have a tough time selling a deal to the House of Commons, which is divided on the issue of Brexit and on what terms to leave the EU. The U.K. is slated to leave the EU on March 29. If there is no deal on future relations by then, widespread chaos on the borders is expected. Tariffs could go up on trade, customs checks could delay goods, and planes could not have permits to fly across the borders, among other things.
EU leaders have a two-day summit starting Wednesday to assess the progress in the talks and if there is no breakthrough there, another summit could be planned for November. In London, British Brexit negotiator Dominic Raab cautioned not to be too optimistic and warned against a compromise that would give away too much.
"If the EU doesn't match the ambition and pragmatism we've showed, we have the plans in place to avoid, mitigate or manage the risk of no deal - and make a success of Brexit," he said, as the government released the last 29 of 104 technical papers on preparations for a no-deal.
Mike Corder from The Hague and Danica Kirka from London contributed.