UK backtracks over Brexit transition period

A handout photo made available by 10 Downing Street on 29 March 2017 shows British Prime Minister Theresa May signing a letter of notification to the President of the European Council setting out the United Kingdom's intention to withdraw from the European Union at 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, 28 March 2017. [Jay Allen/EPA/Handout]

The Prime Minister’s office has sought to play down suggestions that Theresa May’s government is preparing to re-open talks about the length of the transition period after the UK formally leaves the EU.

A UK government paper on the ‘Implementation Period’ published on Wednesday (21 February) states that “the UK believes the Period’s duration should be determined simply by how long it will take to prepare and implement the new processes and new systems that will underpin the future partnership”.

A leaked version of the paper appeared in the press on Wednesday morning, however, prompting speculation that the UK was hoping to re-open the issue.

The paper adds that “the UK agrees this points to a period of around two years, but wishes to discuss with the EU the assessment that supports its proposed end date.”

A spokesperson for May also downplayed the row, insisting that “there will be an end-date included in the agreement”.

The UK wants to wrap up talks on the transition period ahead of a European Council summit on 22 March.

EU guidelines due in March, with or without London’s input

The EU has stated that the transition period, during which the UK would remain part of the single market and bound by its rules, and continue to pay contributions to the EU budget, should last no longer than 21 months, concluding in December 2020.

EU leaders will issue guidelines in March on the future relationship the bloc should negotiate with Britain, regardless of whether London clarifies what it wants, a senior EU official said on Wednesday.

If Britain failed to provide any more details on what it wanted by March, the guidelines would be less detailed, providing less certainty for British firms, the official warned.

EU leaders are meeting at 27 in Brussels on Friday (23 February) to discuss the EU’s next long-term budget and institutions. European Council President Donald Tusk will inform of how he intends to prepare the draft Brexit guidelines for the future relations with the UK ahead of the EU27 summit in March.

The negotiations between the EU and Britain on the future relationship are to end in October with a political declaration attached to the withdrawal treaty. The declaration will then be the basis of negotiating a proper free trade agreement once Britain ceases to be a member of the EU in March 2019.

This adds to pressure on the government of Theresa May to spell out what Britain expects from a future free trade deal.

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But the British government, split into supporters of a tougher and softer line to take, has so far been unable to make any proposals, other than sticking to the initial position that Britain no longer wanted to be part of the EU’s single market and customs union or respect European Court of Justice rulings.

The UK paper seeks only minor changes to the EU’s position on the Withdrawal Agreement, noting that there are “only a small number of areas requiring discussion”. It does not include any text that could give the UK the right to block new EU laws or allow London to sign third party trade deals during the transition.

That will frustrate the group of 62 Conservative MPs from the ‘hard Brexit’ supporting European Research Group, who urged May to ensure that the UK has “regulatory autonomy” after March 2019 in a letter made public on Wednesday.

UK ministers are under pressure to offer certainty to the business community, most of which is seeking a lengthy transition period. That had sparked discussions in London and Brussels about whether the UK might seek to extend the Article 50 process rather than seek a transition. However, this is thought to be too politically toxic to risk with the ‘hard Brexit’ faction of Conservative MPs, and has been rejected by UK government lawyers.

The paper adds that the UK also wants the right to be able to opt in to new Justice and Home Affairs measures, and wishes to “reach swift agreement on the future arrangements for foreign policy and defence collaboration”.

At the weekend, Prime Minister Theresa May said that she would seek to agree a defence and security treaty with the EU before the UK leaves the bloc. However, ministers have so far offered little detail on exactly what it would like to be included in a new treaty.

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