British Prime Minister Theresa May has asked the European Union for an extra two years for the U.K. to complete its withdrawal from the bloc, in a bid to thaw chilled relations between negotiators.
In a speech in the Italian city of Florence, May confirmed her government would pursue an implementation period of “around two years” after the formal point of departure scheduled for March 2019. “A period of implementation would be in our mutual interest,” she added.
Under the deal, relations between Britain and the E.U. would remain much the same as before. Britain would continue contributing to the E.U. budget to settle what has been called its divorce bill with the bloc, May said. Although she did not give a figure, reports have suggested it could be around 20 billion euros ($24 billion), consistent with the U.K’s annual contributions to the E.U. budget. “We want to make an ongoing contribution to cover our fair share of the costs involved,” she said.
The U.K. would also remain within the E.U’s single market and some form of customs union until 2021, she suggested. Freedom of movement would also stay in place although the U.K. would bring in a “registration system” ahead of new immigration controls. This, May said, would give “certainty and clarity to businesses and citizens.”
May said a post-Brexit trade deal should be a bespoke, “creative” partnership, rather than based on existing deals such as European Economic Area membership, or similar to a recent deal struck between the E.U. and Canada.
The Prime Minister struck a conciliatory, even friendly tone toward Europe in her remarks. “We want to be your strongest friend and partner as the E.U. and the U.K. thrive, side by side,” she said. “We want to work hand in hand with the European Union, rather than remain part of the European Union.”
Talks between British and E.U. negotiators have been ongoing since June, but progress has so far been limited. The European side, led by chief negotiator Michel Barnier, has demanded more clarity on how Britain will meet its existing financial commitments to the bloc, and guarantee the rights of E.U. citizens living in the U.K. The fourth round of talks is due to start on Sept. 25.
May admitted negotiations had been “tough” but insisted “concrete progress” has been made on important issues such as Ireland, and on citizens’ rights. “We want you to stay,” she added. However, she cautioned that any failure to reach a deal would be a “failure in the eyes of history,” and would “damage the future of the continent.”
It was May’s first major speech on Brexit since January, the first since negotiations with the E.U. leadership began, and the first since her Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority in a June election. In her January speech, the Prime Minister set out a 12-point plan for a so-called “hard” Brexit that called for the U.K. to leave Europe’s single market and customs union completely, and a “phased implementation process” rather than a lengthy transition.
She has since reneged on the last point at least, amid the rumblings of dissent from Conservatives, some within her own cabinet, who want a clean irrevocable break with the E.U. as early as possible. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote a 4,000-word article for the Daily Telegraph last week setting out his own vision for Brexit, a move widely seen as a veiled challenge to the Prime Minister’s leadership.
Johnson, who played a pivotal role in the campaign to leave the E.U., resurrected the controversial claim that leaving the E.U. could save Britain £350 million a week in budgetary payments, prompting a public rebuttal from the head of Britain’s official statistics authority.
Asked about her Foreign Secretary’s intervention earlier this week, May simply said “Boris is Boris.“