BRUSSELS: Britain must broker its deal to leave the European Union by October 2018, the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Tuesday, warning that time for talks was running out.
Frenchman Barnier added that an interim deal to soften the blow of Britain’s departure was “difficult to imagine” unless it quickly told Brussels what it wanted from a Brexit deal.
Despite the tight new timeline Prime Minister Theresa May pledged a “red, white and blue Brexit” following Britain’s shock June 23 referendum vote to leave the European Union.
“Time will be short. It’s clear that the period of actual negotiations will be shorter than two years,” Barnier said in his first news conference since his appointment by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.
Speaking in a mix of French and English, former finance minister Barnier said the EU was “ready” for May to trigger the official two-year divorce process as promised in March 2017.
But Barnier said that much of that time would be spent getting any deal approved by the remaining 27 EU countries plus the European Parliament and then British members of parliament.
“All in all there will be less than 18 months to negotiate — once again that is short,” added Barnier, once dubbed the most dangerous man in Europe by a British newspaper when he was the EU’s financial services commissioner.
“Should the UK notify the council by the end of March ‘17 as Prime Minister Theresa May said she would, it is safe to say that negotiations could start a few weeks later and an Article 50 agreement reached by October 2018,” he added.
‘Keep calm and negotiate’
Barnier, who is touring EU capitals to hear their views on Brexit, urged Britain to “keep calm and negotiate,” echoing a famously stoic British World War II slogan.
But he also warned Britain that “cherry-picking is not an option” and that it “can never have the same rights and benefits” outside the EU.
Barnier said the EU “needs to know” the full details of Britain’s plans for its long-term relationship with the EU before any interim deal was possible.
“As we don’t know what the UK wants and is waiting for, it’s difficult to imagine a transitional period,” he said.
Barnier’s tough stance was backed by Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who called on Tuesday for a “different attitude” from Britain “because the things I have been hearing so far are incompatible with smooth and incompatible with orderly.”
But the new timeline seemed to catch the British government unaware.
In London, a spokesman for May admitted Barnier’s timetable was new. “It’s the first that I have heard of it,” the spokesman told reporters.
However, British foreign minister Boris Johnson, in Brussels for talks with his NATO counterparts, insisted that “that timeframe seems absolutely ample.”
The EU has become increasingly frustrated with May’s refusal to set out its demands, with her government hedging its bets between control over immigration and access to the EU’s single market.