LONDON—With the clock ticking on the stuttering Brexit talks, British Prime Minister Theresa May has played one of the last cards in her negotiating hand: time.
May floated the possibility of potentially delaying the departure of the UK from the European Union when she met with EU leaders during a summit on Oct. 18, in an attempt to try to unlock negotiations.
While the summit was once slated as the moment at which the UK and EU would announce a potential deal on their future arrangements, talks are stuck on the issue of the Irish border.
The UK and EU are coming to the end of an interim period, separated but still married, as they hash out the divorce agreement before a deadline of March 29, 2019. The agreement will determine just how closely tied the UK remains to the EU system of regulations and laws—a “hard” or “soft” Brexit.
The EU and UK have in principle agreed to a transition period following the March deadline—also called an “implementation period”—until the end of 2020.
Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Oct. 18, May said: “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 of months.
“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.”
The suggestion was met with derision from some hard-line Brexit supporters in the UK, who already feel that May is willing to cede too much British sovereignty to the EU.
The transition period, during which EU regulations would continue to apply to the UK, only applies if a deal is struck.
Stuck at the Border Backstop
Many analysts agree that the currently agreed-upon implementation period isn’t long enough to comprehensively solve the Irish border issue, the main sticking point in negotiations. In offering a longer implementation period, May is hoping to open up new options.
After Brexit, the UK’s only land border with the EU will lie between Northern Ireland and Ireland—a border that was once a flashpoint in sectarian violence, targeted by dissidents as a hated embodiment of what they saw as British occupation.
After a peace deal was struck in 1998, border controls have all but disappeared, with customs and immigration handled seamlessly under common EU rules. Many believe a return to a “hard border” (with physical checks and barriers) would be in violation of the peace agreement.
The EU and UK both agree that a hard border isn’t an option, but they can’t agree on how to avoid one.
The “border backstop” is a safety-net agreement meant to ensure that should future trade negotiations turn sour, or run on and on, a hard border won’t appear between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
A Border in the Irish Sea
Brussels’s solution is to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union, large parts of the single market and the EU VAT system—until a custom-made trade deal is hashed out between the UK and EU.
This would shunt the EU–UK border to the British mainland coast, with border checks at ports between the Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
May said this is unacceptable as it violates the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, and puts a border down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
With last month’s EU summit ending in an acrimonious breakdown in talks, the two-day October summit was a relative success noted EU political analyst Simon Usherwood.
“So, no breakthrough, but also no collapse,” Usherwood wrote on his blog. “Not the most ringing endorsement for yesterday’s European Council discussion on Article 50, but given the possible alternatives, certainly not the worst it could have been.”