It had been billed as a “moment of truth” for the tortuous Brexit negotiations that have dragged on for more than a year.
But like so many other Brexit encounters, a pre-dinner meeting Wednesday between Britain’s Theresa May and the 27 other national leaders of the European Union passed without the bang of a grand finale or without a breakthrough on Britain’s future relationship with its most important trading partners.
To the fury of hardline Brexiters in May’s ruling Conservative Party, the biggest takeaway from the Brussels meeting is Britain and its negotiating partners could be heading for many months more of convoluted talks. The British prime minister told her counterparts she would be open to the idea of prolonging Britain’s transition out of the bloc beyond the previously earmarked December 2020.
Her concession of a longer transition is part of a bid to break a deadlock over how to avoid border checks being reimposed along the 500-kilometer frontier separating the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland when Britain leaves the European Union.
May committed last year to keeping the border open between the two parts of the island of Ireland, even if Britain leaves the bloc without an exit agreement or a free trade deal. The Irish government is insisting the border remain open as Britain agreed to removing checkpoints in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement — a peace deal struck between London, Dublin and most political parties and armed factions in Northern Ireland that brought to an end decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
Britain officially is to leave the bloc in March and to have agreed to an exit deal well before then, but London and Brussels previously had agreed there would be a transition period to conclude at the end of 2020, by which time both sides hope some kind of trade agreement also would have been concluded.
May’s seeming embrace of delaying the timeline avoided an irrevocable falling out with the European Union and allowed her to dodge the moment of truth, according to analysts. Her aides say she has had little choice but to countenance an extension of talks and a prolonged transition amid mounting British government alarm that EU leaders and the bloc’s other national governments are close to pulling the plug entirely on Brexit negotiations, and are ready to accept that Britain may crash out of the bloc without any kind deal.
It has compounded her problems with a large rebel faction within her own party, however, and other hardcore Brexiters who fear negotiation delays and agreeing to keep Britain tied to the bloc for longer could mean the country, which is deeply divided over Brexit, ultimately never leaves.
“Mrs. May’s acceptance of an extension to the transition period will take us to the next general election, which may mean we never leave at all,” complained Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party.
Half-a-dozen former Conservative ministers, including former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who harbors ambitions to replace May, have reacted angrily. Before May’s meeting with her European counterparts, they warned the British leader against reducing Brexit to a “choreographed show of resistance followed by surrender.”
The possibility that May will agree to a longer transition period has prompted renewed Conservative rebel calls for her to go. “If Theresa May is asking for a longer transition period, she is stalling. It’s time to stand aside and let someone who can negotiate get on with it and deliver,” tweeted Conservative lawmaker Nadine Dorries.
British Euro-skeptics oppose Britain remaining in a customs union with the European Union, which is May’s ultimate goal, because they say it would limit Britain’s ability to strike trade deals around the world and force it to abide by rules it will have no power to shape.
Meanwhile, positions are hardening among British lawmakers who either don’t want Britain to leave the European Union or want to maintain very close ties with Europe. More of them are supporting a call for another referendum on EU membership, on the grounds that parliament, as well as the ruling party, are hopelessly divided.