May Signals Openness to Transition Extension: Brexit Update

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Prime Minister Theresa May met fellow leaders in Brussels hoping to break the Brexit impasse.

The main stumbling block is the Irish backstop -- a clause in the exit deal that aims to prevent a policed border emerging on the island of Ireland. Leaders raised the prospect on Wednesday of solving the riddle by extending the transition period -- that means keeping the U.K. tied to EU rules and trading regulations for even longer than the 21-month grace period that’s been agreed.

May Changes Topic Thursday (11:30 p.m.)

On Thursday, May will turn to one of her favorite subjects -- the security links she sees as vitally important to maintain between the U.K. and the EU. Both sides want close collaboration to continue after Brexit on matters of international security and May will propose a new EU sanctions regime to combat the threat of cyber attacks.

“Malign cyber activity causes harm to our economies, and undermines our democracies,” May is expected to say during a session in international security at the summit on Thursday, according to extracts released by her office. “As well as protecting ourselves against attack, we must impose proportionate consequences on those who would do us harm.”

In the context of Brexit, May’s team sees its offer of continuing British assistance to the rest of the EU on security matters as a generous and tempting one. Although usually careful to avoid threatening the bloc with taking away that support, May’s officials have made clear that the security partnership won’t happen if there’s no overarching future trade deal too.

The View From the EU Side... (11:05 p.m.)

Leaders who made an effort to send positive messages on their way in listened to May for about 15 minutes before meeting for dinner without her. But according to three government officials, at least some of them were left puzzled by her presentation.

The EU is now aiming for the December summit to get the deal done, according to one of the officials, though the idea of a November meeting hasn’t been ruled out.

More Details on May’s Statement (11 p.m.)

May spoke to her fellow leaders for about 15 minutes before they sat down to eat. She started by praising the progress that both sides had made together since the diplomatic meltdown at the Salzburg summit in September.

Then she spelled out why she could not accept the EU’s plans for a backstop to the Irish border and urged her counterparts to find “a creative way out of this dilemma,” according to a British official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We have shown that we can do difficult deals together constructively,” the official quoted May as saying. “The last stage will need courage, trust and leadership on both sides.”

EU: Insufficient Progress for November Summit (10:41 p.m.)

EU leaders decided not to call an extraordinary Brexit summit in November because not enough progress has been made and will only do so if negotiators report "decisive progress," according to an EU official,briefing on the leaders’ meeting.

One EU government official said holding a November summit now looks unlikely. "Everyone wants to keep the volume low."

Fox Hails ‘Better Future’ After Brexit (10:35 p.m.)

Meanwhile in London, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has been speaking to business executives at a trade banquet, calling Brexit a “once-in-a-generation chance to shape a better future for our own people.”

He reiterated government positions that Britain will leave the EU customs union and single market, and rejects any Brexit solution “that divides the United Kingdom by treating Northern Ireland differently to any other part of our country.” And he pointed to an export dividend achievable by increasing exports, raising economic output and helping to close the budget deficit.

“For Britain to fulfill its whole potential we must access all the available global markets. It is not a choice between the EU and the rest of the world – we need to sell to both,” he said. “The EU remains the market for 44 percent of our exports, but the EU itself accepts that 90 percent of global growth in the next five years will come from outside the EU.”

EU Leaders End Brexit Meeting (10:25 p.m.)

Spokesman said the European Council meeting on Article 50 is over. That was an unusually long discussion on Brexit.

May Signaled Openness to Extension (9:05 p.m.)

May’s 15-minute presentation amounted to a positive assessment of progress, according to an EU official. But notably, the official also said she indicated her openness to considering an extension of the Brexit transition period.

That would effectively prolong the terms of the U.K.’s EU membership, and would be politically sensitive because Euroskeptics in May’s Conservative Party will see it as delaying Brexit.

But as Tim Ross reports, the idea is gaining traction in May’s team as a potential way to overcome the impasse in negotiations:

Leaders Will Hold Off Calling November Summit (8:40 p.m.)

Leaders will await progress in negotiations before calling another summit next month, according to an EU official. The focus of upcoming talks will be on trying to find wording that means the backstop won’t ever be used. May needs to spell out how she envisages a U.K.-wide customs arrangement working to underpin that -- but the backstop isn’t going away, and it won’t be time limited, according to the official.

May Brings Nothing New to Table, Tajani Says (8:30 p.m.)

In her presentation to EU leaders this evening, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May struck the tone of someone who wants to reach an agreement, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani told reporters. Her "body language" was positive. But there was no change in content, he said.

May, Macron Have a Quick Chat (7:30 p.m.)

May had a "very short" meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, according to the French president’s office.

She’s now gone in to address the group of 27 leaders.

U.K. May Cancel Parliament Vacation (7:15 p.m.)

May’s office is considering canceling a planned vacation for lawmakers in February so that there’s enough time to get Brexit legislation through Parliament in time for exit day in March, Sky reports.

’Much More Time’ (7:07 p.m.)

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier played down expectations of a imminent breakthrough. He said the two sides need ‘much more time,’ and urged patience.

“We are not there yet. Brexit must be orderly, for everyone and all the issues, including the island of Ireland. So we need time, we need much time, much more time. So we continue the work in the next weeks calmly and patiently, calmly and patiently,” he told reporters.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also sounded as though he’s not expecting a rapid deal, saying he hopes negotiations can be wrapped up in the “coming weeks or months.” If it’s not in November, “then a couple of weeks later.”

Leaders Worry About Westminster (7:03 p.m.)

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel is the latest EU leader to say the bloc is not only worried about reaching a deal with May; they’re also worried about how U.K. lawmakers will react. The response to her House of Commons address on Monday will have provided little reassurance -- lawmakers lined up to attack her policy.

“If we have an agreement, I hope we have support of the British Parliament,” Michel said. The comment came moments after Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said she wished the U.K. would rally behind the prime minister.

Everyone is being Very Polite (6:45 p.m.)

It’s the anti-Salzburg summit. After the disastrous meeting in Austria, which ended in such acrimony, tonight is shaping up to be much politer, genteel affair. A string of leaders lined up to utter honeyed words to Theresa May -- Luxembourg’s acting prime minister Xavier Bettel said he hoped for compromise, underlining “we all have to move together.”

Previously, EU leaders had put the onus firmly on May to make concessions. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, known as a hardliner when it comes to Brexit, offered hope, saying “we are not too far” from a deal.

Rutte Sees a Deal in Weeks (6:25 p.m.)

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte struck an upbeat note, saying he was “cautiously optimistic” that over the coming weeks a deal could be sealed, adding he didn’t think things would be resolved tonight. He said that he thought last Sunday or Monday that there might have been a breakthrough, before those hopes were dashed.

Asked about extending the transition as a way around the Irish border fix, he said it’s one of the instruments on the table.

Bettel Calls for Both Sides to Move (6:15 p.m.)

Luxembourg’s acting prime minister Xavier Bettel said he hoped for a compromise: "We all have to move together."

He also expressed the concern that’s on many officials’ minds -- what happens in London when May takes whatever she negotiates back to Parliament.

"Finding a deal here doesn’t mean it will get the green light in London."

More Drama to Come (5:55 p.m.)

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite urged May to come with a clear proposal for Brexit, and said she wished the U.K. would rally behind the prime minister.

"There is no clear stance, no clear proposal from the U.K. side until now," she said. "we want somebody to come and say what they want finally."

Asked whether there would be a summit in November -- which is still up in the air -- she said: "It will be November and maybe more summits because the drama is not yet in its final stage."

May Dodges Question on Extending Transition (5:50 p.m.)

Asked about the possibility of extending the transition period, May dodged the question. It’s being touted as a possible fix, to give both sides more time to sort out the Irish border issue and make it less likely that the backstop -- loathed by the U.K. -- would ever come into effect.

May said there’s been progress since a summit in Salzburg last month that was a diplomatic disaster, and she’s confident she can get a deal.

"Now is the time to make this happen,” she told reporters on her way in.

Still Time (5:40 p.m.)

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, a former president of the European Parliament, said there is still time for a deal to get done and that negotiations are almost settled over Gibraltar.

"I have never seen an agreement in Europe that was reached before the last minute," Borrell told lawmakers in Madrid.

He said Gibraltar will naturally become closer to Spain after the split, but Madrid doesn’t want to open up the issue of sovereignty. "Everything takes its time," he added.

Stretchy Deadline (5:15 p.m)

Earlier in the day, Environment Secretary Michael Gove spoke at a parliamentary committee. He is a key figure in May’s Cabinet and was a high-profile Leave campaigner. His voice matters in any government split.

“It might be the case – and we have seen how European negotiations work – it might be the case progress is made at the October council, progress is made at the November council, and it’s even as late as the December council before a deal is done,” he said.

Asked about the comments, a government spokeswoman said the plan is to get it done "in the Autumn." Officials have indicated that it needs to be done by year-end at the latest to allow time for legislation to go through Parliament.

Varadkar Says Extension No Replacement for Backstop (4:50 p.m.)

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said while he’s open to fresh thinking on how to break the impasse, any extension to a transition period “couldn’t be a substitute for the backstop.”
The Irish government thinks the grace period might need to run as long as five years, but is unwavering in its view that an insurance policy to avoid a hard border in Ireland is needed regardless. Before he headed to his meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, he warned “time is running out ” for a deal.

Coming Up:

  • May will address the bloc’s 27 leaders at 7 p.m. in Brussels, before they have dinner without her to discuss the next steps in the process.
  • European Parliament President Tajani will brief reporters at 8 p.m. after May’s address. A press conference is also expected after the dinner, by EU Council President Donald Tusk and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.