The move could be designed to assert Brussels’ control over the next phase of the Brexit process
Trade talks between Britain and the EU will not start until a month or more after Brexit, the European Commission has said.
The announcement puts additional pressure on the tight timetable for a trade deal to be agreed before the end of the transition period in December.
It comes as the two sides remain deeply divided over whether the UK should be allowed to overhaul its regulatory regime after leaving the EU, which Brussels says would promote “unfair competition”.
Some form of trade agreement must be signed within 11 months, or Britain will default on to World Trade Organisation terms which could prove seriously disruptive to businesses dependent on close links to the EU. The timescale is so tight that European officials have previously claimed a full trade deal will be impossible.
‘Ready to begin’
Cutting the timetable still further, by postponing the start of formal trade negotiations to the end of February or the beginning of March, makes that task still harder.
The UK Government blamed Brussels for the delay, saying: “We are ready to begin discussions with the EU from February 1. The EU have various processes to go through before they are ready to sit down and have those discussions with us.”
But the European Commission’s spokesman hit back: “To put the blame on the EU Commission for the state of affairs seems to me to be beside the point. Quite clearly the UK has been in control of the calendar.”
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One the face of it, the EU’s position seems like a sharp U-turn from what they were saying last year, when officials promised to start trade talks at the exact moment the Withdrawal Agreement was signed off by Parliament – expected to happen this week.
There are two possible explanations – one is that in the EU, rules and regulations tend to trump all else, so if the rules say that a full consultation between member states must be carried out then that is what will happen.
The other, held to by many Brexiteers, is that Europe is delaying the start of talks in order to give off the impression that it is in control. The EU dictated the timetable for the first phase of talks, starting in 2017, which was a key victory for Brussels. Doing the same in this next phase could be a powerful signal that Europe intends to be no more yielding this time around.