Brexit: EU sets March deadline for Britain to decide what kind of trade deal it wants

Jon Stone
Talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU will not start in earnest until next spring despite Theresa May’s breakthrough last week, amid concern that the UK hasn’t made up its mind: PA

The European Union has set Britain a March deadline to decide what kind of trade deal it wants after Brexit, amid concern in Brussels that the UK doesn’t know what it wants to get out of its departure.

Talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU will not start in earnest in Brussels until spring 2018 despite Theresa May’s breakthrough last week amid concern that the UK hasn’t made up its mind.

At a summit in Brussels on Friday leaders of the 27 EU countries are expected to give the go-ahead to their negotiators to talk about “some elements of a framework for our future relations”. But they are are also expected to instruct chief negotiator Michel Barnier to focus mostly on the transition period, where Ms May was more specific in her Florence speech.

“When it comes for the framework for future relations we expect more clarity from our UK colleagues about what the end state, their end objective is,” a senior EU official said ahead of the summit.

“I would say that the time between now and the March European Council is the last call to London to put more details on what is their vision of the framework for the future relations.

“Until now we have heard it’s no single market, no customs union, but it’s a bespoke partnership. If no new elements will come from London then we will work on that basis. We will work on the basis of no customs union and no single market.”

Leaders will meet to discuss Brexit on Friday after other business at the European Council has been dealt with – including migration quotas and the creation of a European Monetary Fund.

It is understood that EU officials were spooked after Chancellor Philip Hammond told MPs earlier this week that the Cabinet had not yet discussed the end goal of Brexit, while Brexit Secretary David Davis revealed to another committee that the 58 studies into Brexit’s impact, which he previously claimed existed, did not in fact exist.

A European Commission communiqué to the European Council, released on Friday, illustrated the doubts in Brussels about the practicality of the UK’s approach, warning that it “seems hard to reconcile” the UK’s plan to leave the single market and customs union with commitments made over Northern Ireland in the first phase of talks.

Despite the Commission’s wish to focus on the transition period because of its clearer terrain, the issue could still present stumbling blocks. One key row is likely to be on whether the UK will automatically adopt new EU laws without a say in drawing them up after 2019.

The Independent reported in November that EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier wants any transition to involve the “automatic application in the UK of new EU rules post-30 March 2019” – something key Brexiteers in the Cabinet, including the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, have explicitly set as red lines.