Brussels’ lead Brexit negotiator has called for an “orderly withdrawal” of the UK from the EU but warned the government will have less than two years to agree its exit in a tough negotiating timetable set by the bloc.
In his first press conference after being appointed as head of the EU’s Article 50 Taskforce, Michel Barnier said it was “too soon to talk about the details” of negotiations as both parties had now entered “uncharted waters” after the referendum.
Given the tight timetable for negotiations, which will require the EU to respond to Britain’s formal request to withdraw, Mr Barnier said in practice the countdown for an agreement would be less than two years after the triggering of the official Article 50 exit clause, holding out the possibility of a deal by October 2018:
Time will be short. All in all there will be less than 18 months to negotiate. That is short.
Should the UK notify the EU by the end of March 2017, it is safe to say negotiations could start a few weeks later and an agreement reached by October 2018.
Approval for an agreement by the autumn of 2018 would give member states and the UK “five or six months” to ratify the deal through their parliaments ahead of European Parliament elections in 2019 he said. Germany also heads for key presidential elections in late 2018.
Following the UK’s exit, Britain will have a new type of legal “parternship” with the EU, said Mr Barnier, warning talks of a “transitional” agreement would be difficult without indicators from the UK government on what type of relationship it was looking for.
“We need to hear what the UK’s intentions are and then the 27 will react to that”, said the Frenchman.
“We need to know what the perspective would be for this new parternship – only then would we we be able to decide on the usefulness of a transitional period”.
Mr Barnier repeated the EU’s tough line that the UK could not “cherry pick” its new relationship with bloc, warning that “third countries can never have the same rights and benefits” as full member states.
“The world will be legally complex, politically sensitive and will have important consequences for our economies and our peoples on both sides of the channel”, said the former French foreign minister and ex-EU Commissioner.
Speaking in Berlin on Tuesday, German chancellor Angela Merkel also gave a public warning to British prime minister Theresa May over Brexit, telling her CDU party conference that there would be “no cherry picking” about the UK’s access to the EU’s internal market.
To widespread applause, she made clear the EU’s four freedoms, including freedom of movement, were inviolable. British access to the internal market, including in financial services, would depend on continuing to accept freedom of movement, she said.
Mr Barnier has been on a tour of the continent’s capitals carrying out bilateral talks with the EU’s remaining 27 member states. Commenting on the prospect of the UK severing all ties with the internal market after talks, he said:
I do not know what a hard or a soft Brexit are. I can say what a Brexit is: clear and ordered. We want a clear agreement.
He recalled his first vote as a 20-year old in a French referendum to decide on Britain’s accession to the then European Community:
I campaigned for a Yes vote and I still think today that I made the right choice.
Five months ago a majority of the British citizens voted to leave the EU. We now need to deal with this new situation and organise an orderly withdrawal.
We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.
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