Michel Barnier has said he is open to the possibility of a one-year extension to Britain’s Brexit transition in return for Theresa May accepting a “two-tier” backstop to avoid a border in Northern Ireland, according to EU diplomats.
On the eve of a Brexit summit in Brussels on Wednesday night, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator told ministers from the 27 member states that Brussels was ready to propose fresh ideas to reach a deal by next month.
The plan, informally suggested to the UK in talks last week, involves including a one-year extension clause for the 21-month transition period, which ends in December 2020. This would grant more time to agree a new UK-EU trade relationship and avoid special arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Britain, however, objected to significant elements of the plan for Northern Ireland, effectively suspending talks until after the summit of EU leaders this week.
Speaking to ministers in Luxembourg, Mr Barnier privately outlined his vision for a “two tier” backstop that could be included in the withdrawal agreement to ensure an open border was always maintained between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
This would include both a backstop for Northern Ireland alone, keeping it within the EU customs union and single market for goods, and alternative references to a UK-wide customs union.
Any separate UK-EU customs arrangements would, however, have to take the form of a new treaty to be negotiated and agreed in full after Brexit. “The extension and two-tier backstop arrangement would only be offered if all other parts of the Withdrawal Agreement are reached,” said one official in the room.
Another diplomat added: “The extension is an example of how we could be flexible to help the British side if they want it.”
British diplomats claim that the idea of a longer transition period was “an idea being kicked around by Barnier” but say they are open to the idea. “It would be wrong to say any agreement has been reached,” said one.
Any extension would be subject to agreeement by both sides.
France and Germany are supporting Mr Barnier’s objections to UK demands that the so-called backstop include no Northern Ireland specific elements, insisting that any UK-wide elements are agreed after Brexit.
But French officials are expressing willingness to finding ways to demonstrate any special arrangements to avoid a border in Northern Ireland would be “temporary”, albeit without a clear time limit.
Downing Street has declined to rule out applying for an extension to the transition period, currently due to end in December 2020, as part of the endgame of Brexit negotiations.
Such a move would be politically toxic for many Eurosceptic Tory MPs, who already resent the fact that Britain will remain a de facto member of many EU policies for 21 months after Brexit.
Because of the sensitivity, EU diplomats suspect that any British request would come at the very end of negotiations to avoid inflaming Tory sensitivities.
Extending the transition into 2021 would mean another year of free movement as well as membership of the single market and customs union. Britain would have to negotiate over how much it would pay into the EU budget under any extended transition.
But Mrs May’s team is considering the move because it would be a simple way to buy more time to agree a UK/EU trade deal, which is intended to remove the need for the Irish border backstop guarantee.
Britain has already said that it expects to have a trade deal by December 2021.
When she announced plans for the transition deal — or implementation period, as she prefers to call it — she said she expected it to last “about two years” after Brexit in March 2019. She could argue that extending it to December 2021 might just fall within that timeframe.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said on Tuesday that it was up to Mrs May to come to a summit on Wednesday with “concrete proposals” on the Irish border.
“What we need . . . is the feeling that we are at least closer to a real positive breakthrough,” Mr Tusk said.
He indicated his hope that Mrs May could convince other EU leaders that an acceptable deal was still possible and that a way through the “Gordian knot” of the Irish border question could be found.