European Union leaders set to approve second stage of Brexit talks

However, while talks will begin in January on a post-Brexit transition period of about two years, actual negotiations on future trade ties would not start until March.

May, weakened after losing her Conservative Party's majority in a June election, has so far carried her divided government and party with her as she negotiated the first phase of talks on how much Britain should pay to leave the European Union, the border with Ireland and the status of European Union citizens in Britain.

European leaders are set to give the green light for the second stage of Brexit talks to begin.

Addressing the leaders over a Thursday night dinner of roasted langoustines, ballotine of capon and "festive log with a twist", May was "clear about wanting to move onto trade talks as quickly as possible", a British official said.

Speaking in her Maidenhead constituency, Mrs May told the Press Association the move to the second phase of talks represented "an important step on the road to delivering the smooth and orderly Brexit that people voted for in June of last year".

Mr Juncker said on Friday that the EU's initial priority was to "formalise the agreement" that had been reached before moving forward.

And time is tight.

Asa Bennett, Brexit commissioning editor, and Brexit correspondent James Rothwell discuss what will happen next as the fraught negotiations move on to phase two.

The UK will also need to continue to respect the rulings of the the EU's top court, the European Court of Justice during the transition period, an anathema for hardcore Brexit supporters.

At Friday's meeting, the leaders said Friday "sufficient progress" had been reached on the outstanding European Union bill Britain will have to pay, the rights of citizens in each other's areas and the commitment to maintain a transparent border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The document "calls on the United Kingdom to provide further clarity on its position on the framework for the future relationship".

Meanwhile, her hopes of avoiding a second Commons defeat over Brexit also improved after senior Tory backbenchers from both the Leave and Remain factions appeared to be ready to back a compromise over Mrs May's plan to write the date the United Kingdom leaves the European Union into law.

There was unease in Brussels over a Westminster vote on Wednesday that gives a final say to MPs on the Brexit deal, with concerns over May's ability to negotiate an agreement.

Ministers are likely to accept their plan, which is a change that some of the potential rebels have been asking for, the BBC understands.

A British government official said the prime minister was approaching the next phase, which will discuss a transition period as well as the terms of the future trading relationship, "with ambition and creativity".

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker commended May, saying she is a "tough, smart, polite, friendly negotiator".

Praising Mrs May as a "tough, smart and polite" negotiator, he said he was "entirely convinced" that the final agreement reached would be approved by the United Kingdom and European Parliaments.

  • Jon Douglas