The Brexit negotiators of Theresa May want to secure a written promise of a European Union transition agreement at a key summit this week, to help assure companies that they will get the grace period they desperately want.
Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator of the EU Brexit, and David Davis, his British counterpart, are preparing for talks and a press conference in Brussels on Monday, according to people familiar with the matter. It is a sign that the two parties are on track to reach an agreement on a status-quo transition phase that will last until the end of 2020.
Companies are likely to welcome the prospect of an agreement in which the United Kingdom continues to operate as if it were a member of the EU for 21
European leaders must meet for a summit in Brussels starting on Thursday, when they are trying to approve the transition agreement and will then agree on the bloc's negotiating position for the next phase of the Brexit talks, which focuses on the future business relationship with the United Kingdom
British negotiators are pushing for the EU to include an explicit statement in its negotiating guidelines at the summit. They want the document to indicate that agreement has been reached in principle on the terms of the transition, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Companies put pressure on May's team to provide them with the greatest possible peace of mind that they will be able to operate in Europe after Brexit without having to change their processes to face new barriers, such as tariffs or border controls, for at least 21 months
Unless the EU, financial services and other companies make such a clear statement, they are expected to accelerate their contingency plans in case there is no agreement when the UK leaves the block within a year.
Despite the positive signs leading up to the summit, concerns have grown in recent days that European officials might try to delay the transition agreement until May moves even further to assure the Irish government that there will be no a hard border with Northern Ireland after Brexit.
Barnier and his team have stressed that there will be no transition phase if the United Kingdom and the EU do not sign a final exit agreement that includes a solution for the Irish border.
Whatever happens this week, the thorniest question of the Brexit negotiations is unlikely to be resolved: how to patrol the Irish border when the UK leaves the European Union.
The United Kingdom and the EU announced a separate chapter of negotiations over the next month seeking progress towards a solution. Irish representatives will be invited to attend the sessions.
May has already rejected the draft EU exit treaty, which provides for a backslide option that would ensure that there is no hard border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union of the EU while the rest of the UK is leaving.
The prime minister says that she will never accept such a solution because it would effectively keep Northern Ireland within the commercial and legal jurisdiction of the EU. But EU officials say that until now, May has not offered a plausible alternative solution.