Theresa May has told MPs there may be limited circumstances when it is in Britain’s interest to agree to a short extension to the transition period after it leaves the EU in March 2020.
In a Commons statement following last week’s EU summit in Brussels, the Prime Minister said such an extension would be an alternative to activating the so-called Northern Ireland “backstop”, intended to guarantee there is no return to a hard border with the Republic.
She stressed that in any circumstances the transition – currently due to end at the end of 2020 – would have to be over “well before” the end of the parliament expected in June 2022.
“There are some limited circumstances in which it could be argued that an extension to the implementation period might be preferable, if we were certain it was only for a short time,” she said.
“For example, a short extension to the implementation period would mean only one set of changes for businesses – at the point we move to the future relationship.
“But in any such scenario we would have to be out of this implementation period well before the end of this parliament.”
Mrs May faced a furious response from some Tory MPs after it emerged that the possibility of an extension to the transition period – currently due to run for 21 months – had been discussed by EU leaders in Brussels.
It prompted accusations the UK could be forced to pay billions into EU coffers for months – or even years – to come after it has left bloc.
The Prime Minister said while the terms of the withdrawal agreement were now 95% agreed, there remained an “impasse” over the issue of the Irish border.
She made clear, however, she would not accept a situation in which the UK could be kept “indefinitely” in either an extended period of transition or a backstop which tied the UK to EU customs rules.
“We would not accept a position in which the UK, having negotiated in good faith an agreement which prevents a hard border in Northern Ireland, nonetheless finds itself locked into an alternative, inferior arrangement against our will,” she said.