The European Union is ready to extend the post-divorce transition period with Britain, diplomats said, amid efforts to revive chances to strike a Brexit deal at a key summit on Wednesday.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is due in Brussels later in the day to speak to the other 27 EU leaders on the stalled negotiations for Britain’s scheduled exit from the union on March 29.
Talks are at an impasse over the issue of a legal backstop to keep the border between British Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic open after the United Kingdom leaves the bloc.
But EU negotiator Michel Barnier has an idea to help break the logjam, two EU diplomats told AFP and Ireland’s top diplomat told the BBC.
Barnier is willing to add a year to the 21-month post Brexit transition period — taking it to the end of 2021, the two diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
“The aim is to gain more time to negotiate the agreement on the future (trade) relationship and thus further reduce the probability of having to resort to the backstop,” one of the diplomats said.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Barnier proposed an extension, but did not say for how long.
“What Michel Barnier has indicated very clearly is that the EU side is, certainly, willing to allow more time in the transition period to agree an alternative solution to a backstop,” Coveney told the BBC.
This offer would not in itself resolve the backstop issue which must be included in the withdrawal treaty and ratified before the end of March to avoid a damaging “no deal” scenario.
But it would avoid the need for separate plans for British-ruled Northern Ireland, which London staunchly opposes on grounds of sovereignty.
The diplomats said Barnier had revealed his offer to EU ministers at a meeting this week in Luxembourg.
It comes as European Council President Donald Tusk, the summit host, said he would ask May to offer new “concrete ideas on how to break the impasse” when she arrives in Brussels
But Tusk said he had “no grounds for optimism” based on a report Tuesday from Barnier and May’s appearance in parliament on Monday where she stood her ground.
May will meet one-on-one with Tusk at 5:45 pm (1545 GMT) before briefing her 27 European colleagues, but then the rest of the EU leaders will leave to discuss Brexit over dinner without her.
Tusk has made it clear that if May and Barnier do not signal concrete progress towards a draft deal he will not call a November summit to sign it.
Instead, the matter could either be pushed back to December or — more dramatically — the EU could use the November weekend to meet on preparations for a “no-deal” Brexit.
Previously, both sides had agreed that Britain crashing out of the Union on March 29 next year with neither a divorce agreement nor a road-map to future ties would be an economic and diplomatic disaster.
“There are still several weeks of space left, according to what the British are telling us, and they are the ones with calendar problems,” said a senior EU diplomat.
But with the row over the Irish border, fears of a debacle are mounting.
At a three-hour British cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning, which included ministers with reservations about her strategy, May said a deal was possible if they all stood together.
Addressing MPs in the House of Commons on Monday, May had said a deal was “achievable” while sticking to her principles on the Irish border issue.
But a senior European official said the speech had only underscored for Barnier the uphill struggle he faces to get an agreement.
To solve the Irish question, Britain has proposed staying aligned to the EU’s customs rules until a wider trade deal can be signed that avoids the need for any frontier checks.
But her own eurosceptic Conservative MPs are demanding this “backstop” arrangement be time-limited, something the EU will not accept.
May said the EU was also insisting on its own “backstop” in case the London proposal did not work, which would see Northern Ireland alone stay aligned to the customs union and single market.
She says this would threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom — and it is strongly opposed by her Northern Irish allies from the Democratic Unionist Party.
Economists fear “no deal” Brexit would greatly disrupt trade, travel and manufacturers’ supply chains in Europe, push Britain into recession and even have global consequences.
Europe’s biggest auto firms on Wednesday warned that a no-deal Brexit would “threaten their very business model” by disrupting component distribution.