EU leaders will meet to decide their strategy for the Brexit negotiations at a special summit at the end of April, Brussels has announced.
Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, said the April 29 meeting would strive to achieve “certainty, clarity for all: citizens, companies and member states”.
It means the summit will take place in the middle of French elections, which will be held over two weekends at the end of April and at the start of May.
Diplomats and officials in Brussels had hoped to hold a council of the EU’s 27 governments as early as April 6, to decide the way forward.
However, Theresa May’s announcement of March 29 as the date for triggering Article 50 – rather than last week, as widely expected - forced back the timetable.
At the summit, all eyes will be on how strongly EU leaders insist that Britain must agree to settle its possible £50bn ‘divorce bill’ before negotiations can start on a future trade deal.
Announcing the date, Mr Tusk vowed to make "the process of divorce the least painful for the EU" - although he did not mention what pain lay ahead for Britain.
"In view of what was announced in London yesterday I would like to inform you that I will call a European council on Saturday 29 April to adopt the guidelines for the Brexit talks," he told a Brussels news conference.
"I personally wish the UK hadn’t chosen to leave the EU. But the majority of British voters decided otherwise. Therefore we must to do everything we can to make the process of divorce the least painful for the EU.
"Our main priority for the negotiations must be to create as much certainty and clarity as possible for all citizens, companies and member states that will be negatively affected by Brexit, as well as our important partners and friends around the world."
The use of the word "divorce" came despite Ms May insisting that word should not be used to describe Britain's split from the EU, in her statement to Parliament last week.
"I prefer not to use the term of divorce from the European Union because, very often when people get divorced, they don’t have a very good relationship afterwards," the Prime Minister said.
"Honourable members need to stop looking at this as simply coming out of the European Union and see the opportunity for building a new relationship with the European Union and that’s what we will be doing."