UK PM mulls longer transition as EU demands Brexit progress
BRUSSELS - AFP
Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed Thursday she was open to extending a Brexit transition period if it helped unblock negotiations, after EU leaders repeated that Britain must do more to avoid crashing out of the bloc without a deal.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier suggested the extension as a way of breaking the deadlock on how to keep Britain’s border with Ireland open after Brexit, which is holding up the whole divorce agreement.
But a source in the French presidency warned this may not resolve the problem, while May also faces opposition to the idea from her eurosceptic MPs at home.
This week’s Brussels summit had been set as the deadline for a draft deal, but EU leaders have instead been left to contemplate the potentially catastrophic scenario of Britain crashing out in March without any agreement.
Arriving for a second day of talks, May noted that both sides remained at odds over a "backstop" plan to avoid frontier checks with Ireland if and until a new trade deal could be signed that resolves the issue.
"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," she said.
A senior EU official said that Britain would have to ask for the extension, and then the other 27 member states would have to agree.
"More than ever, the ball is in Britain’s court," said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel as he arrived for Thursday’s talks.
May emphasised she did not expect the extension to be needed beyond the current date of December 2020, amid anger among eurosceptic members of her Conservative party that Britain could be tied to the EU indefinitely.
"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," the prime minister said.
The possibility of an extension made front-page news in Britain on Thursday and some eurosceptic MPs warned they could not accept such a plan.
The top-selling The Sun tabloid warned it was "an outrageous non-starter".
"Unless she can give a date when we will leave the EU and ALL its major institutions she cannot claim to have fulfilled the referendum vote", it said in an editorial.
But the EU is upping the pressure on May to give ground.
European leaders had hoped to hold a special summit in November to seal the divorce, but at a Brussels dinner without May late Wednesday they refused to sign off on the plan.
Officials noted May had failed to respond to a call by EU President Donald Tusk for "concrete proposals" of her own to move the talks forward, and said more progress was needed.
Failure to meet in November could see a draft Brexit deal pushed back to a December summit, leaving little time for its ratification by the British and European parliaments.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said EU leaders had asked the bloc’s executive "to work with even more vigour on a no-deal scenario".