British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she would consider extending a so-called transition period beyond Brexit “for a matter of months”.
The idea would allow more time to resolve the Irish border conundrum which is threatening to derail the whole process – but it has immediately been shot down by her critics.
Talks over the UK’s departure from the EU remain deadlocked, raising fears of a “no-deal” scenario and a chaotic exit at the end of next March.
What is the transition period and what’s being suggested?
The withdrawal agreement being negotiated currently includes plans for a so-called transition period after Brexit – the UK government prefers the term “implementation period” to put into place new arrangements – to run until the end of December 2020.
This would help avoid an abrupt “cliff-edge” and help businesses and others adapt to life with the UK outside the EU. However, it would keep the UK firmly in the EU’s sphere.
A deal is needed to put the transition period into effect – but this is threatened by the ongoing deadlock over how to keep the Irish border open.
The idea of an extension had been floated by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier. Brussels reportedly proposed prolonging the transition by a year. Theresa May has now confirmed that an extension is an option being considered.
“A further idea that has emerged, and it is an idea at this stage, is to create an option to extend the implementation period for a matter of months – and it would only be for a matter of months,” the prime minister told reporters in Brussels.
An extension would give more time to resolve the Irish border problem and the future trade relationship, and avoid the need for disputed fallback arrangements – the so-called “backstop” – to come into force.
“The point is, that this is not expected to be used, because we are working to ensure that we have that future relationship in place by the end of December 2020,” May said.
Why so much hostility to the idea?
The suggestion has angered those – particularly Brexiteers – who believe London has already conceded too much ground to Brussels. Some have described the idea as “desperate” and “completely ridiculous”.
Already lukewarm at the planned 21-month transition period, they now argue that the UK would remain subject to EU rules and regulations – but with no say in those matters – for getting on for three years after Brexit.
The UK would effectively remain in the EU’s single market and customs union, and would have to pay still more financial contributions to Brussels. Some argue it might mean Brexit never happens.
Critics, including politicians from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), also point out that an extended transition would do nothing to resolve the issue of the Irish backstop itself.
But some EU leaders say the idea does have some merit. “If it did help to reassure people that the backstop would never be activated, that would be a positive thing,” said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
Why is the “backstop” causing such a headache?
Brexit will create a land border between Northern Ireland – part of the UK but in future outside the EU – and EU member the Republic of Ireland.
The UK government’s plans would create a separate system for goods which might mean checks and controls, bringing disruption and a potential return to the sectarian troubles of the past.
The sticking point has been over the so-called “backstop”: a kind of insurance policy to keep the border open in the absence of an overall deal covering trade and security – and agreed by both sides last December and again in March.
Under that agreement, the UK agreed to keep Northern Ireland aligned to EU single market and customs union rules, should there be no end deal on trade.
However, it also reaffirmed that Northern Ireland would remain “an integral part of the United Kingdom”. The UK government argues the EU’s backstop proposals would divide the UK down the Irish Sea – and Parliament has passed amendments contradicting the EU’s interpretation.
Both sides have suggested compromises, but this has still not brought an end to the deadlock.
Where does this leave the Brexit process?
The suggested extension to the transition period came as EU leaders refused to call a special summit in November to draft an exit deal, given the ongoing deadlock. The next formal EU summit is scheduled for December.
The UK Parliament would have to agree to an extension, but this is uncertain given the strength of opposition and Theresa May’s fragile position.
The UK is due to leave the EU at the end of March 2019, by which time any deal would have to be passed by the British and European parliaments, as well as national assemblies across the bloc.