An extension of the UK’s Brexit transition period “probably will happen”, the President of the European Commission has said, in a move that has further angered Tory MPs and could isolate Theresa May.
Jean-Claude Juncker said on Thursday at the close of a two-day crunch summit in Brussels that he was “convinced” a deal would be reached, and warned a no deal exit would be “dangerous” for both sides.
Theresa May is facing an angry backlash from Tory MPs on all sides, as well as her Northern Irish DUP allies, over the suggestion the transition could last longer, extending beyond December 2020.
The prime minister played down the idea at her own press conference following the European Council summit. “What has now emerged is the idea that an option to extend the implementation period could be a further solution to this issue of the backstop in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“What we are not doing, we are not standing here proposing an extension to the implementation period.”
Leading Brexiteer Tory backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg has said such a move would be “a rather poor attempt at kicking the can down the road”, while former Brexit minister Steve Baker took to Twitter to lambast the suggestion of an extension.
“I’m sure a few of us predicted Chequers would be pushed to the Customs Union plus some kind of single market membership, effectively reversing the result,” he wrote.
He was echoed by ex-Remainer John Penrose, who told the Guardian an extension “kicks the can down the road and is the beginning of sliding into not delivering what people voted for”.
But the idea has not only angered Tory Brexiteers. Pro-EU MP Nick Boles has said it would be “madness” to extend the transition, and warned the Conservative party was now “close to despair”.
“I’m afraid she is losing the confidence now of colleagues of all shades of opinion,” he told the BBC, later describing such an extension as a “desperate last move”.
Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, dismissed the idea that extending the transition would help solve the problem of Northern Ireland. “An extended transition period means the United Kingdom continues to ‘pay but have no say’ in Brussels,” he said.
“Such an extension would cost the United Kingdom billions of pounds, yet our fundamental problem with the EU proposal remains.”
The transition – during which the UK would remain in the single market and customs union and stay subject to EU rules – is intended to provide time for authorities and officials to prepare for new arrangements following the official date of Brexit in March 2019.
Juncker told a press conference at the end of the summit: “This prolongation of the transition period probably will happen. That’s a good idea.
“I think this is giving us some room to prepare the future relationship in the best way possible.”
With time running out to secure an agreement, Juncker added: “I am convinced that under leadership of Donald [Tusk] we will find a deal with Britain.
“The working assumption is not that we will have no deal.”
Speaking at a separate press conference, Tusk said: “We are in a much better mood than after Salzburg [in September]. What I feel today is that we are closer to final solutions and the deal.
“It’s maybe more an emotional impression than a rational one but emotions matter in politics.”
The talks were plunged into crisis following the Salzburg on the September 19 when Tusk declared May’s proposed Chequers Brexit plan would “not work”.
Speaking at her own press conference today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the UK and EU still needed to find a solution to the Irish border issue.
“All of the 27 said that we wish to bring about a solution, one that clearly expresses the fact that Britain is no longer a member of the EU, but also expresses what we all want politically speaking – namely that we establish a good relationship with Britain for the future,” she said.
“As long as we don’t have a satisfactory solution we cannot really explain in a satisfactory way how this is to come about but I think where there is a will there is a way. That is usually the way.