Britain’s Theresa May mulls longer transition as EU demands Brexit progress
PM slammed by press and ministers back home, who say delaying leaving the EU is a ‘desperate last move’ in the negotiations
UK Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed on 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 in March 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 agreement. 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.
Arriving for a second day of talks, May noted both sides were still 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 Britain would have to ask for the extension and the other 27 member states would need 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 has been struggling since the 2016 vote for Brexit to find a compromise that is acceptable to both the EU and to her own MPs, who could block the final deal in the House of Commons.
The possibility of an extension was front-page news in Britain on Thursday and some Eurosceptic MPs warned they could not accept such a plan.
Former minister Nick Boles described an extension bid as a “desperate last move”.
“[May] keeps on thinking that one more concession is going to somehow [succeed], with one bound and she’s free,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “And she’s not going to be free, she’s getting ever more trapped.”
Failure to meet in November could see a draft Brexit deal pushed back to a December summit.
Following the Brexit talks, the bloc will seek closer ties with the East at a summit that includes China, Japan and Russia. Leaders from the EU, Switzerland and Norway will welcome 21 Asian counterparts including Premier Li Keqiang.
The 51 gathered leaders are set to show “strong support” for the World Trade Organisation that US President Donald Trump had threatened to quit, according to a draft communique.
“This is a message that the European Union is more than Brexit and that Europe has friends beyond Washington,” said a senior EU official involved in preparing the summit.
The EU-Asia summit meeting will also pressure Beijing to combat what Europe says is China’s harmful overproduction of steel and a final statement is set to say the leaders agree to tackle “excess capacity in industrial sectors”, according to the draft.
The EU also wants Beijing to remove subsidies – a policy the West says is aimed at dominating global markets. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is due to discuss subsidies with Li at a lunch on Friday.
Additional reporting by The Guardian, Reuters