Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after a news conference at the European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
UK prime minister Theresa May said she envisaged any extension would amount to no more than ‘a matter of months’ © Toby Melville/Reuters

Prime Minister Theresa May’s gamble to unlock Brexit talks by offering to keep Britain tied to the EU until 2021 has set off a torrent of criticism at Westminster, with MPs from across the Brexit divide lining up to attack the plan.

Mrs May acknowledged she was willing to extend the period that Britain remains under EU law beyond 2020 to allow more time to strike a trade deal with Brussels, which would avoid the need for a back-up plan to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The move helped to create a conciliatory mood at a two-day European summit, where German chancellor Angela Merkel called for more flexibility on both sides to engineer a breakthrough on Brexit.

But Conservative MPs on both wings of the debate denounced the idea, saying it could turn Britain into a “vassal state” well beyond its formal March 2019 departure — taking EU rules and making budget contributions, but losing any influence in Brussels for years.

“She is reneging on everything,” said Anna Soubry, a pro-European MP.

Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist party, which props up Mrs May’s minority government, said: “An extended transition period means the United Kingdom continues to ‘pay but have no say’ in Brussels.”

Mr Dodds said the EU would still insist on a back-up plan for Ireland to guarantee against any return of a hard border, a “backstop” that would split Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK for customs and regulatory purposes. The DUP has threatened to bring down Mrs May’s government over the issue.

Among Brexiters, prominent backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was equally critical, saying the transition extension was “a rather poor attempt at kicking the can down the road”.

Mrs May said she envisaged any extension would amount to no more than “a matter of months”, but acknowledged that she was considering the option. She said it “could be a further solution to the question of the backstop in Northern Ireland”.

The prime minister has been under intense pressure in both London and Brussels to formulate a new plan for the Irish border, with Emmanuel Macron, the French president, continuing to strike an uncompromising tone. “It’s not for the EU to make some concessions to deal with a British political issue. I can’t be more clear on this,” he said.

But Ms Merkel made a more conciliatory intervention, arguing that both the UK and EU needed to settle the Northern Ireland question or risk leaving the region without a way to prevent a hard border — something Dublin is desperate to avoid.

Three diplomats said that, at a summit dinner, the German chancellor indicated that the EU and Ireland should rethink their approach on the issue to avoid a fundamental clash with London.

“If you don’t have an agreement, you don’t have a satisfactory answer [to the border issue] either,” Ms Merkel said at a press conference following the dinner. She noted that, on Northern Ireland, “we all need an answer”.

Negotiators will soon focus on designing an extension to the post-Brexit transition period and whether it should leave open the possibility of being renewed more than once, to give more time for the EU and UK to agree a trade deal.

Mrs May’s aides said the prime minister did not want a “renewable” clause to extend the transition, but one added: “Both sides are listening to each other’s ideas.”

Downing Street depicted a longer transition as “a bridge” to a trade deal that could finally settle the Irish border issue.

Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, welcomed prolonging the transition as “a good idea” from London that “probably would happen”.

Leo Varadkar, Irish prime minister, said there were “lots of ideas and mechanisms floating around”.

Mrs May struck a positive tone even though the Brexit talks remained deadlocked at the end of the two-day summit. She admitted there would still be “difficult moments” ahead in negotiations.

British officials were relieved the summit had been broadly constructive, much different in tone than a fractious gathering of EU leaders last month in Salzburg, and claimed that exit negotiations were now “in a better place”.

Additional reporting Jim Brunsden, Mehreen Khan, Michael Peel, Rochelle Toplensky

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