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Extending the Brexit transition period a distraction from the border backstop

THERESA May's intervention at a summit of European leaders in Brussels this week had, in some quarters at least, been expected to mark a decisive step in Britain's stuttering negotiations to leave the EU.

It did not. The prime minister's contribution has done almost nothing to bring any closer a withdrawal agreement, which remains as elusive and as highly prized as the Holy Grail.

If it had any merit, at least relations between the UK and the EU appeared to be more civil than they had at last month's tetchy Salzburg summit.

Speaking late on Wednesday, Mrs May presented the idea that she was open to the option of extending "by a few months" the transition period - during which the UK will fully extricate itself from the EU following the March 29 2019 exit date - beyond the already agreed 21 months.

Though nonplussed, the EU side has signalled it is generally receptive to the proposal.

However, even making the suggestion that the transition period could be extended is risky for Mrs May.

Already under enormous pressure on multiple fronts domestically, it has further opened her to criticism from the more strident Brexiteers in the Conservative and DUP ranks; they cannot countenance anything that might keep the UK in a relationship with the EU for a day longer.

Nor does extending the transition period achieve anything of substance.

Pretending it does is putting the cart before the horse. That is because there can be no transition period without a withdrawal agreement, which in turn cannot happen until there is a deal on the border and the backstop.

At a news conference in Brussels yesterday, Mrs May did not deny telling the Irish government that there would be no time limit on the backstop.

This concession will place her under further pressure from ardent Brexiteers, who fear that unless the backstop is time-limited Northern Ireland could end up staying in the customs union and the single market while Britain does not.

Though many regard this unique solution as a highly desirable outcome for Northern Ireland in economic, social and cultural terms, it is also part of the Irish Sea border scenario that the DUP regards as an existential threat to its particular view of the Union.

Meanwhile, the secretary of state has introduced legislation at Westminster which, among other things, allows civil servants to take major decisions with no democratic oversight.

This is a profoundly underwhelming prospect, particularly in light of the steady stream of evidence at the RHI inquiry highlighting multiple civil service failings.

Bizarrely, Karen Bradley claims her legislation will help restore devolved government.

As things stand, that seems as remote a possibility as Brexit being satisfactorily resolved.

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