British Prime Minister Theresa May was “ready to consider” extending a transition phase after the United Kingdom formally leaves the European Union next year, according to officials.
May did not offer new ideas to break the deadlock in Brexit negotiations, which have stalled over border issues on the island of Ireland, when she met EU leaders at the start of a summit in Brussels on Wednesday, but showed “will to make headway”, said Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament.
Brussels and London have vowed to prevent the re-emergence of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which will leave the EU with Britain, amid fears the issue could reignite decades-old tensions.
But the two sides disagree on how to resolve the issue.
Tajani said he raised with May the possibility the post-Brexit transition period, during which the UK would retain EU rules and avoid border problems with Ireland, could be extended by a year to 2021 – something EU negotiators proposed to soften a demand for special rules for Northern Ireland.
Such an extension, keeping Britain under EU governance with no say in it, would be highly unpopular with hardline supporters of Brexit.
Tajani said May told him she would consider it but gave no indication of whether she favoured such an extension.
An EU official, who spoke to Germany’s dpa news agency on the condition of anonymity, also said May had said she was “ready to consider” an extension to the 21-month transition period after Brexit.
Irish border issues
The idea of a one-year extension to the transition period had been proposed by EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
This would buy more time to negotiate the future relationship between Britain and the EU, which could potentially help to make progress on the Irish border issue.
Without a solution, the entire divorce deal is at risk, setting Britain on track for an unregulated Brexit that would likely bring chaos and economic pain to both sides.
The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the difficult final phase of the talks did not necessarily mean they would be unsuccessful.
“It is always the case in negotiations that they are tense and difficult and challenging at the end. That doesn’t mean they will fail. No one wants these negotiations to fail, neither the EU nor Theresa May want a hard Brexit,” Kurz said.
According to the UK government, May, in her speech, urged other EU leaders to help secure a Brexit agreement, saying they had done “difficult deals” before and could again.
“We have shown we can do difficult deals together constructively. I remain confident of a good outcome,” a government official quoted her as saying.
“The last stage will need courage, trust and leadership on both sides,” she said.
Earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned that Europe must prepare for all outcomes. “That includes the possibility that Britain leaves the European Union without a deal,” she said.