The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has written to leaders of the UK’s opposition parties to say that the EU is willing to extend the Brexit transition period for up to two years.
He said the EU is "determined to build a new and ambitious partnership with the United Kingdom in the short time that is available".
The government has repeatedly ruled out an extension, despite calls to delay the date during the coronavirus pandemic, and reiterated this stance on Wednesday in response to Barnier’s offer.
A spokesman for the prime minister said: “There is no change to the government’s position. The transition period will end on December 31.”
Barnier said the EU had always said it wanted to remain open regarding a transition timeline.
He wrote in the letter: “Such an extension of up to one or two years can be agreed jointly by the two parties.”
Barnier added: “Any extension decision has to be taken by the Joint Committee before July 1, and must be accompanied by an agreement on a financial contribution by the United Kingdom.”
But David Frost, the chief negotiator of Task Force Europe, told MPs at a Brexit select committee on Wednesday the “firm policy” of the government was it would not extend the Brexit transition period beyond the end of the year.
He said: “I think we have always put a lot of emphasis on economic and political freedom at the end of this year and on avoiding ongoing significant payments into the EU budget.
“And, of course, those things are accomplished by ending the transition period at the end of the year.”
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford has called on Boris Johnson to accept the extension offer.
He said it “would be madness to pile a Brexit crisis on top of the coronavirus crisis”.
Blackford added: “Time is running out. There is just a month left to agree an extension to prevent the UK crashing out with a devastating bad deal or a catastrophic no deal.
“If the Prime Minister fails to agree an extension he will be responsible for every job lost, every income slashed, and every business that goes under as a result of his bad Brexit deal.”
The government admitted last week checks will be needed on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK as part of Brexit.
Northern Ireland will have to follow EU rules on agriculture and manufactured goods, ensuring access to its single market and keeping the border with the Republic free-flowing in a key concession maintaining a decades-old peace.
Screening will be supported by electronic processes, the Cabinet Office added, once the transition period finishes at the end of this year.
Michael Gove, minister in charge of Brexit preparations, said: “Our proposals will deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the whole of the UK market; ensure there are no tariffs on goods remaining within the UK customs territory; discharge our obligations without the need for any new customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland and, finally, guarantee that Northern Ireland businesses benefit from the lower tariffs we deliver through our new free trade agreements with third countries.”
Gove has attacked the EU over its stance in the ongoing Brexit talks, saying it wants Britain to “obey the rules of their club even though we are no longer members”.
The EU wants to avoid Northern Ireland being used as a backdoor entry point to its market and has pressed for controls.