Brexit talks could be over by October 2018
(BRUSSELS) - Negotiations with the United kingdom over withdrawal from the European Union could be over in 18 months, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Tuesday.
Making his first official statement since his appointment as the EU's Chief Negotiator with the United Kingdom under Article 50, Mr Barnier said the EU was ready and prepared for the negotiations.
Since July, the EU executive has been building a task force of some 30 experts, who have been screening the body of EU law - the 'acquis' - with the object of identifying the issues that will be discussed during the negotiations.
Over the last two months, M Barnier and his team have been meeting the various actors in the negotiations from the EU side with a view to coming to a common understanding of the various legal, technical and financial aspects of the issues that will arise in the negotiations.
EU institutions such as the European Central Bank, the European Investment Bank, Europol and the European Court of Justice have also been involved in the preparatory talks.
The EU is now ready to receive Britain's notification of Article 50, and M Barnier says time is short. He made clear that he expects the period for actual negotiations to be shorter than the two years often mentioned.
The Commission, he said, will stick to the wording of Article 50, he said, which stipulates that the two-year period includes the time for the European Council to set guidelines, and for the Council to authorise negotiations based on the recommendation of the Commission.
At the end of this period, the agreement needs to be approved by the Council and by the European Parliament. And finally the United Kingdom will have to approve the agreement.
So time is short, M Barnier said, and should the UK notify by the end of March - as stated by prime minister Theresa May - negotiations could start a few weeks later, with an Article 50 agreement reached by October 2018.
The Commission was very clear on its guiding principles for the talks, he said. Unity of the remaining 27 Member States would be preserved; third countries could never have the same rights and benefits and members, since they are not subject to the same obligations; negotiations will not start before formal notification of Article 50; and there would be no cherry picking on the single market: "the single market and its four freedoms are indivisible," he said.
M Barnier also made clear that it was up to the British first to say what sort of relationship it wants in the future.
Answering a journalist's question on possible transitional arrangements, M Barnier said these could only make sense after the United Kingdom had outlined its ideas for a future relationship: "Until the UK sets out its ideas, a transitional arrangement would make no sense," he said.
Finally, the Commission reiterated its view that notification should come soon. "The sooner the better", said M Barnier, adding that there was a common interest in not prolonging uncertainty.