May Holds Out Prospect of Brexit Agreement by September 2018

  • Holds out prospect of signing full Brexit deal in 18 months
  • Premier declines to promise lawmakers a vote on final accord

U.K.'s May Optimistic of 18-Month Brexit Talks Deal

The U.K. will discuss adopting a transition phase to ease its departure from the European Union in Brexit talks with the bloc, Prime Minister Theresa May said, as she promised to give more details of her thinking early next year.

Businesses and the U.K. government might need time to adjust to leaving the EU and a temporary arrangement to smooth the way could be the solution, May told lawmakers in London on Tuesday, in her clearest sign so far that she supports calls for a transition plan.

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“I would expect us to be able to negotiate a deal within the two-year period that is set out, but it may be the case that there are some practical aspects which require a period of implementation thereafter,” May told Parliament’s Liaison Committee, made up of senior lawmakers. “We will discuss whether we need an implementation phase.’’

May’s support for a temporary deal to bridge the transfer from the U.K’s membership of the EU to its new trading relationship outside the bloc will please business groups and others who have warned that a cliff-edge departure would hurt trade. But the premier told the panel she “can’t say immediately now’’ what kind of a transition process will be necessary until the final shape of Brexit is clear.

‘Extent of Change’

“It may be government actually needs a period of time to make sure its systems adjust to whatever the new arrangements are going to be,’’ May said. “The uncertainty here -- and I accept it’s an uncertainty -- is that the extent to which that is required depends upon the nature of the deal that’s agreed and the extent of change that’s required by that deal.’’

The prime minister intends to start the formal Brexit process by triggering Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty by the end of March. This will start negotiations lasting a maximum of two years, after which the U.K. will legally leave the EU even if no deal has been reached.

May faces a potential obstacle to her timetable with a court ruling due next month. The Supreme Court in London will decide whether the prime minister has the power on her own to invoke Article 50 or whether she must first seek the consent of lawmakers. If May loses the case, she is expected to produce a short bill that will have to be passed by both the lower and upper houses of Parliament, potentially delaying the Brexit process.

May said Tuesday she still intends to keep to her timetable and suggested that the negotiations could be finished within 18 months, leading to a final deal by September 2018. Both the future trading relationship and the arrangements for leaving the bloc will have to be negotiated at the same time, May said, putting her at odds with EU negotiators who want to discuss the U.K.’s exit deal first and then the new trading accord.

Contingency Plans

The premier said other EU leaders want the deal to be completed in time for it to be ratified by the European Parliament well before elections to that body are held in mid-2019. She disclosed that the government would be drawing up contingency plans in case the deal fell apart or was blocked by the EU legislature.

“Negotiations will be challenging and, as with every international negotiation, they will require some give-and-take,” May said. But there is “willingness” from EU leaders “to ensure that we can undertake this as smoothly and in as orderly a fashion as possible,” she said. “It could be as little as 18 months.”

The premier vowed to give lawmakers the chance to scrutinize her plan for Brexit before triggering Article 50 and announced she would set out her vision for the U.K.’s future outside the EU in a speech early in 2017. Despite this pledge, she would not promise lawmakers a vote on whether the U.K. should accept or reject the final deal.

When asked if members of parliament would have a decisive vote, May said only that she would “make sure that Parliament has ample opportunity to comment on and discuss” the U.K.’s new arrangement with the EU. Her stance contrasts with that of U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis who said this month it would be “inconceivable” for lawmakers to be denied a vote on the final trade agreement.

“I was surprised that the Prime Minister was unable to confirm that she would expect Parliament to have a vote on the Brexit agreements,” committee chairman Andrew Tyrie said after the hearing. “We’re edging towards a little more clarity, at least on the need for transitional arrangements. The sooner this is made a priority, the better.”

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