THE “moment of truth” in Brexit negotiations is approaching and the European Union hopes for agreement on so-called withdrawal issues “in the next few days”, Brussels’ chief negotiator has said.

Michel Barnier called for “real, sufficient progress” on the Brexit “divorce bill”, citizens’ rights and the Irish border, so that EU leaders can green-light talks on trade and a transition period before Christmas.

He spoke as Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney stressed all EU27 leaders agree that trade talks cannot start unless Britain offers further assurances there will be no hard border with Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister Theresa May has been given until December 4 to come up with further proposals on the withdrawal issues so Barnier can recommend to leaders at the forthcoming European Council summit that enough progress has been made for trade talks to begin.

At an EU summit in Tallinn, Estonia, Barnier said: “I do hope in the next few days we will come up with an agreement on principles, and a real agreement.

“We need to have real, sufficient progress in the three key areas where the UK’s decision has created a lot of uncertainty and fear even.”

He added: “The moment of truth is approaching, we have a council under the Estonian presidency on December 14 and 15, and I really hope that will be the point where we will see real, sufficient progress on the conditions of our separation.

“And that will allow me to recommend the opening up of the next two phases of negotiations, first of all on the transition period and then on the future relationship.”

Amid fears there could be a return to a hard border in Ireland given the UK government’s commitment to leaving the European single market and customs union, which allow for frictionless trade, the Frenchman said: “We don’t want to be putting up barriers again and we need furthermore to maintain the integrity of the single market.”