By Shaun Connolly, Press Association Political Correspondent
Theresa May has signalled that any extension to the Brexit transition period should end before the next scheduled general election in June 2022.
The Prime Minister’s comments came after reports emerged that the EU was open to letting post-Brexit arrangements remain in place until December 2022.
Mrs May said: “From my point of view, I think it is important in delivering for the British people that we are out of the implementation period before the next general election.”
At present, under the terms of the draft Brexit agreement, the transition is due to begin when the UK leaves the bloc on March 29 2019, and last until December 31 2020. But it may be extended once only if it proves impossible to complete a full deal on future relations by that date, as an alternative to activating the so-called “backstop” arrangements to keep the Irish border open.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said an extension could not be open ended.
He said: “Any prolongation of the transition period, which requires agreement with the British on their financial contribution during any such period, but, anyway it can’t be indefinite, it has to be a fixed period of time.”
Mr Barnier added: “I believe that we will make a final and specific proposal for these purposes during the course of this week.
“So, we would fix a final moment for up to which we can have a single prolongation of the transition.”
Business Secretary Greg Clark said it may make sense to extend the transition period.
Pressed on whether it would be until the end of 2022, Mr Clark told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It would be at our request and that would be a maximum period.”
Mr Clark suggested it could be extended for a matter of “weeks or months”, saying: “If we were six weeks away from concluding a future economic partnership and agreeing that then it may make sense to extend the transition period.
“It would be our discretion, it would be purely for us, if we wanted to, and there are reasons why we may not want to take that up, it would be available to us.”
In a transition arrangement, EU law will continue to apply in the UK and Britain will continue to participate in the customs union and the single market.
During an extended period, the UK could have to continue to allow the free movement of people from the EU and keep making large payments to Brussels.
In October, Mrs May confirmed she was ready to consider a delay of “a matter of months” in Britain’s final departure from the EU in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
Tory former leader and prominent Brexiteer Lord Howard told the BBC he was against extending the transition period to the end of 2022, stating: “That would be just kicking the can down the line yet again.”
CBI president John Allan said that, while Mr Barnier’s intentions in proposing an extension may have been constructive, such an announcement “may not be particularly helpful” at this point in time.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think he’s trying to be helpful and trying to reduce the risk that the backstop will be needed. Him saying it just at this moment may not be particularly helpful, but I think his intentions are probably good.
“We all hope it won’t be necessary, that the discussions on our future economic relationship with the EU will be concluded by the end of 2020 and within the existing transition period.
“But remember, that transition period only comes into effect if Parliament approves the Withdrawal Agreement. Otherwise we’ve got the cliff edge in March next year.”