British Prime Minister Theresa May signalled on Thursday she would consider extending a so-called transition period “for a matter of months” after Britain leaves the European Union, a move her critics say is a betrayal of Brexit.
Less than six months before Britain quits the EU in its biggest shift in policy for more than 40 years, Brexit talks have stalled over how to deal with their only land border, between the British province of Northern Ireland and Ireland.
At an EU summit in Brussels, while the mood was more upbeat about the willingness for a deal to ease Britain’s exit, several leaders and diplomats said May had offered nothing new to strike the kind of breakthrough needed to move forward.
The problem centres on a so-called backstop - an insurance policy to ensure there will be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland, a former focal point for sectarian tensions, if a future trading relationship is not in place in time.
Extending the transition period could mean that if a future partnership is not ready, a backstop, which so far has been unpalatable to the British side, would not have to be triggered. But even an extension will not get rid of the EU’s insistence that such a backstop must be agreed to secure a deal.
“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 a matter months,” May told reporters on the second day of the summit.
“But the point is, 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 has tried to use the summit in Brussels - once seen as the stage for a possible breakthrough after more than a year of talks - to offer a softer tone to her EU counterparts after another such meeting last month ended in acrimony.
Before leaving them to dine on Wednesday, May urged them to work together. “We have shown we can do difficult deals together constructively. I remain confident of a good outcome,” she told the leaders, according to a British official. “The last stage will need courage, trust and leadership on both sides.”