Britain and the European Union on Tuesday announced a pact to regulate complex arrangements for Northern Ireland after Brexit, as both sides readied for a face-to-face showdown to try to salvage a wider trade deal.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to meet EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels to see if they can find the breakthrough that has eluded their trade negotiators for months, ahead of Britain's exit from the European single market in just over three weeks.
Neither side sounded particularly hopeful, although the pact on Northern Ireland offered some grounds for optimism hope that each side is capable of compromise on key issues.
"I am always hopeful, but I have to be honest with you, the situation at the moment is tricky," Johnson said, touring a hospital in London for Britain's historic rollout of a coronavirus vaccine.
"Our friends have to understand the UK has left the EU to exercise democratic control. We are a long way apart still," he said.
"It is looking very difficult at the moment. We will do our level best. I would say to everybody there's great options ahead for our country."
After the negotiating teams' latest session in Brussels, Johnson held a phone call with von der Leyen late Monday and secured an invitation to head over in person.
In a joint statement, they noted yawning gaps still on three big issues: ensuring fair cross-Channel competition after Brexit, arbitration of a future deal, and fisheries.
The 27 EU leaders are due to meet in person at a summit on Thursday, so time is short, but Downing Street said details of Johnson's trip were still being ironed out.
It confirmed, however, that there were no plans for Johnson to meet French President Emmanuel Macron or German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Brussels.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier and UK counterpart David Frost were holding another session of contacts Tuesday in Brussels, to review progress and draw up a report for their leaders.
After briefing EU ministers, Barnier tweeted: "Full unity. We will never sacrifice our future for the present. Access to our market comes with conditions."
- 'Not at any price' -
Even as London and Brussels try to carve out a new trading relationship after nearly five decades of tight economic integration, the separate and politically vexed issue of Northern Ireland has been looming in the background.
Northern Ireland will have the UK's only land border with the bloc from next year, and that border is meant to stay open in all circumstances as part of the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence over British rule.
How to keep the trade border-free, while also ensuring Northern Ireland retains full access to mainland Britain, has been testing a separate channel of talks between senior UK minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic.
After they met in Brussels on Monday, the two officials said agreement had been made "in principle" including on border arrangements for Northern Ireland, covering goods passing from Britain to the province, and onwards to the EU's single market via Ireland.
As a result, London will cut three controversial clauses in a bill going through parliament that would have denied Brussels a say in future trading arrangements between the province and Ireland.
In turn, that could smooth the path for Johnson's trip to EU headquarters after Germany's Europe minister Michael Roth pointedly demanded London restore "trust and confidence" to the relationship.
Heading into the meeting with Barnier, Roth said: "Both sides will undertake additional efforts to reach a deal. We want to reach a deal, but not at any price. What we need is political will in London."
Britain left the EU on January 31 and entered a transition period to allow negotiations to establish a trade relationship with zero tariffs and zero quotas.
Johnson boasts Britain will thrive whatever the outcome of the talks and has rejected asking for a longer transition, or to prolong the negotiations into next year.
"There may come a moment when we have to acknowledge that it's time to draw stumps," he said Tuesday, using a cricket analogy meaning to declare play is over and abandon the talks.
"But you know, we will prosper mightily" either way.