Negotiators included a provision to extend the so-called “implementation period” in the agreement released last week, but were coy about the maximum length it could be drawn out to, leaving the date “20XX” to be filled in later.
The transition is controversial because it keeps the UK tied into EU regulations with no say about what they are, in what Brexiteers have described as a “vassal” arrangement.
But the Government and Brussels both say it is necessary to negotiate a proper trade agreement in without disruption.
Theresa May told the House of Commons earlier this week that “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”.
But the prime minister appears not to have committed to this policy in the text of her agreement.
An updated document released on Thursday now shows the transition can now run until the end of December 2022 if both sides agree to an extension – six months after the next UK general election in May of that year.
The updated withdrawal agreement says both sides can agree to “a single decision extending the transition period for up to one or two years”.
This is important because it means any incoming government elected in 2022 could change policy before the UK is out of Brussels’ orbit – reversing Brexit or keeping the UK tied to EU laws permanently.
In Brussels the extension is widely expected to be used, given the near impossibility of negotiating a trade agreement during the 21 months initially suggested as the length.
Downing Street had previously said in October that any extension would only be for “a matter of months”.
During the transition the UK would apply all EU laws, including new laws it had no say over making, including single market regulations, freedom of movement rules, and customs union protocals. It would also continue to contribute to the EU budget.
The agreement also says that if the UK wants to extend the transition period it would have to pay an unspecified amount more.
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