The EU’s lead Brexit official has urged the UK to “keep calm and negotiate” as he set out an 18-month deadline for talks on a deal.
Although Article 50 of the EU treaties allows two years to thrash out a deal, the commission’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said talks must end months earlier to allow time for the European Council, the European Parliament, and the UK to approve the agreement.
If Britain formally notifies Brussels of its intention to leave by the end of March — as British prime minister Theresa May has said she will — this would mean a deal is needed by October 2018.
Mr Barnier indicated a transitional arrangement, potentially meaning the UK continuing to pay into the Brussels budget in order to secure the best single market access, could be put in place after formally breaking away from the EU.
In an apparent indication that he is unwilling to budge from the requirement for freedom of movement in return for full access to the single market, Mr Barnier said the UK will not be allowed “cherry-pick” which EU rights and obligations it wishes to keep.
In his first briefing on his preparations for the Article 50 negotiations, Mr Barnier said: “Being a member of the European Union comes with rights and benefits. Third countries can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to the same obligations.”
Mr Barnier said he is aiming for an “orderly” Brexit, but that it is “too soon” to discuss the details of how it would happen.
“We are entering uncharted waters,” he said.
“The work will be legally complex, politically sensitive, and will have important consequences for our economies and for our people, on both sides of the Channel.”
Mr Barnier indicated that a transition arrangement after Brexit could be agreed, but it would be up to the UK to set out its aims first before the rest of the EU could consider it.
A transitional period “only has sense if it prepares the way for a future relationship”, said Mr Barnier, but acknowledged that “you can’t do everything in 15 to 18 months of negotiations”.
Despite earlier suggestions that he would insist on French being the language of the Article 50 talks, Mr Barnier spoke in both English and French at the Brussels press conference.
He said: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”
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