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EU chief says reaching Brexit deal by December ‘huge challenge’

European Union President Donald Tusk says that a Brexit deal by December is a “huge challenge” and has given UK Prime Minister Theresa May 10 days to improve her offer if she wants EU leaders to allow Brexit talks to move to the next phase.

Tusk issued the ultimatum on Friday on the sidelines of an EU summit in Brussels after sensitive discussions with the embattled UK premier about Britain’s exit from the EU.

The “absolute” deadline gives May until a meeting with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on December 4 to make sufficient progress on the key Brexit issues.

If May’s offer on critical withdrawal issues fails to make “significant progress,” EU leaders will refuse at their next summit on December 14 to unlock the next phase of the Brexit negotiations about a future trade deal and a transitional arrangement after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019.

“Sufficient progress in Brexit talks at December EUCO (summit) is possible. But still a huge challenge,” Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, said on Twitter after his meeting with May.

“We need to see progress from UK within 10 days on all issues, including on Ireland,” he added.

An EU source told AFP the talks were “long and honest”, with Tusk setting December 4 as an “absolute deadline for the UK to make additional efforts” in time for EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to formally declare enough progress.

The EU insists that Britain must resolve critical withdrawal issues, including a multibillion-euro divorce bill, EU citizens’ rights and the Irish border, before there can be any talks on future relations.

The issue of the Irish border has come under intense focus. Dublin has warned London that it will block progress of the Brexit negotiations unless the UK guarantees there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

“Particular attention was on how to ensure the support of Ireland to move to the second stage,” said the source, adding that it was “still unclear” how Britain would meet Dublin’s demand to avoid any return of border restrictions with British-ruled Northern Ireland.

EU member states have become increasingly frustrated with Britain’s reluctance to compromise, and are also worried that May’s fragile Conservative government is unable to do so even if it wanted to.

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