Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said on Friday that EU leaders would begin internal preparations for the second phase of Brexit — talks about a trade deal with the UK.
Brexit negotiations had appeared to be in a state of deadlock, with the EU calling for clarification on the financial settlement or "divorce" bill while the UK pushed for parallel talks on trade. Tusk played down difficulties, saying that talk of deadlock had been overblown.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel hinted in the early hours of Friday morning that progress had been made, assuring journalists she was confident that a good Brexit deal would be reached by March 2019. She criticized the British press for presenting the talks as shambolic or running behind schedule: "I find that absolutely absurd. We are in a process," adding that Brexit "will happen within the required timeframe."
Merkel noted that although insufficient progress had been made to move onto formal negotiations with the UK on the future trading relationship, EU leaders wanted to build on the constructive progress of May's Florence speech in September,
when the British Prime Minister struck a more conciliatory tone than before.
"We have made progress, and it is perhaps the nature of the thing that we look at it step by step," Merkel said.
Merkel spoke after a dinner where May delivered her view of talks so far and urged the EU to accelerate the process.
It was originally hoped that that an agreement on outstanding issues such as the Irish border, EU citizens' rights and the divorce bill would have been reached by now. Such an agreement may now not come until the council's next meeting in December.
Still, after months of frosty relations between the UK and European leaders, a change in tone was on display from the start of this summit: Merkel and French President Emmanual Macron — the two most influential European leaders — were seen in a very public, cordial huddle with May.
This stands in stark contrast to last December's summit, when photographs of May casting a lonely figure were taken by many to represent the UK's isolation from the other European leaders.
On Friday morning, other EU heads of state followed Merkel's lead — affirming a new impetus in the Brexit negotiations.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat praised May's "candid and sincere appeal that she wants progress to be made." The Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskait? was also optimistic: "It was not expected to have a success in this European Council, we hope that we will be able and she will be able to have a success in December."
What was geared up to be a tense standoff between the British Prime Minister and the EU leaders has ended on an optimistic and cordial note — with Merkel leading the change in tone.
Formal discussions on the shape of the future partnership and trade deal between the UK and EU will not start immediately — as had previously been hoped in London. But Theresa May has succeeded in improving relations with her EU counterparts ahead of the critical sixth round of Brexit negotiations next month.