As EU leaders insisted they were fully prepared for the Brexit talks, they cancelled provisional plans to hold a summit on April 6 to agree on the outlines of their negotiating position, indicating May’s announcement that she would invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on March 29 comes too late for that.
The summit will be arranged for the end of April or early May, eating into the UK’s two-year negotiation period.
With disagreement between the UK and the EU already evident on such issues as Britain’s financial commitments, the structure of the talks themselves and how much a future trade deal can be wrapped up within two years, European policymakers warned the British government that it must have realistic expectations as it leaps into the unknown.
Britain needs “realism on the sequence of things, realism on the price it’s going to cost, realism on the complexity and so the time needed, because up to now I’ve missed this very much from the UK government”, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem told reporters in Brussels on Monday.
Europe has been waiting for the UK to announce when it would officially send notification of its decision to leave the EU since a referendum on June 23 last year.
While the EU has not entered into even informal talks with the British government since then, the 27 countries have spoken to one another to formulate a common position.
Highlighting the EU’s relaxed attitude to the start of negotiations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was not surprised by May’s announcement, because the prime minister had “always put her cards on the table” regarding the Brexit timeline.
Some parts of the EU have been concerned Article 50 would overshadow a meeting of the 27 leaders in Italy on March 25 to celebrate 60 years since the Treaty of Rome, but “it’s of absolutely no importance whether the submission comes a day beforehand, three days later or a week later” than that, Merkel told reporters.
The bloc planned an initial response within two days of May triggering Article 50, EU President Donald Tusk said.
While EU leaders will gather in April or May for a summit to agree on the “framework” for the Brexit talks, actual discussions with the UK cannot begin until ministers from the 27 nations officially approve more-detailed negotiation directives to be drawn up by the Brussels-based European Commission.
This could take several weeks, meaning the two sides may not be able to start discussions until late May or June.
Frenchman Michel Barnier, a former European commissioner, will lead the negotiations on behalf of the bloc. While he will carry out the day-to-day talks, he will remain in contact with the 27 governments to ensure that the UK was not playing them off against each other.
Brexit Minister David Jones told a panel of legislators in London that the government was making contingency plans in case Brexit talks collapsed without a deal, although he insisted he was expecting a successful negotiation.