Lord Kerr — who drafted the legal framework for countries wanting to leave the European Union known as Article 50 — has said the UK government’s proposed two-year Brexit implementation period won’t avoid a cliff-edge scenario.

The so-called cliff-edge refers to the UK exiting the EU without a formal withdrawal agreement, plunging businesses, travellers, and immigrants into uncertainty.

In a speech to the pro-EU campaign group Open Britain Kerr said:

The key point about such a standstill is that it doesn’t avoid the cliff-edge; It merely postpones it for a couple of years. That wouldn’t provide the certainty business so badly needs. And whether it’s called transition, implementation or standstill, it would follow our leaving.

Kerr, the former head of the foreign office, also made clear that although there is a two-year period to leave the EU after Article 50 is invoked, the time-limit can still be extended.

The notion of an extension has been “rather inadequately reflected, or indeed misinterpreted, in our current public debate”, according to Kerr, who served as UK ambassador to the EU from 1990 to 1995.

He told the audience:

The Article is clear that after two years, one is out. But the time-limit can be extended if all parties consent: this could become important. I am uneasy that the country isn’t being told much about the possibility of taking more time… I don’t know why both government and opposition now seem to discount the possibility of our seeking an extension.

The 75-year-old suggested that an extension could be necessary, casting doubt on the UK government’s ability to strike a deal with the EU by October 2018, the time frame set by chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier. 

I am puzzled by UK suggestions that a fully comprehensive agreement about the future can be completed and initialled by this time next year. EU trade agreements with third countries come under Article 218, not Article 50. They take time, and Association agreements take longer.

Although Kerr hopes that the UK’s agreement with the EU will “go much wider than the Canadian agreement”, he made clear that Canada’s deal with the EU was negotiated over a much longer seven-year period.

Getting widely-drawn agreements ratified can be tricky…and ratifying widely-drawn agreements can be problematic: the Canadian deal got stuck in the Wallonian parliament.

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Meanwhile, Kerr insisted that the UK can still withdraw altogether from the process of leaving the EU at any point up until March 2019.

We are not required to withdraw just because Mrs. May sent her letter. We can change our minds at any stage during the process.

Brexit secretary David Davis is currently in Brussels to discuss citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and the UK’s so-called divorce bill with EU officials.

Following the latest round of negotiations with the UK, Barnier said today that “some progress” had been made in the Brexit talks.