The European Union is considering forcing the U.K. to wait until June for formal negotiations to begin on the terms of Brexit, eroding the time Prime Minister Theresa May has to land a deal, according to EU officials.
The 27 other members of the EU have pinpointed a meeting of government ministers in Luxembourg on June 20 as the moment to authorize the opening of two years of talks, two EU officials said on condition of anonymity. Until now, May has set the agenda, but once she triggers the exit, power shifts to the EU and she will have to be patient.
As well as limiting how long the two sides have to find common ground, pushing the start of the divorce discussions until late June risks upsetting businesses and banks that are seeking early clarity on just what the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU means for them.
While leaders of EU countries will gather in April or May for a summit to agree on the “framework” for talks, actual discussions with the U.K. can’t begin until ministers officially approve more-detailed negotiation directives to be drawn up by the Brussels-based European Commission. It’s unclear how fast after that authorization the two sides could arrange to sit around a table.
Although June 20 — almost exactly a year since the U.K.’s Brexit referendum — has been penciled in, the bloc hasn’t ruled out governments having the opportunity to give approval at a scheduled gathering on May 16 or at an extraordinary meeting should the paperwork be completed in time.
How soon the EU can proceed will largely depend on when May triggers Article 50, and if leaders can hold their summit on the preferred date of April 6. U.K. officials say May is eyeing the final week of March, but she has yet to confirm that is her plan.
The longer the U.K. waits, the less likely the April summit date becomes, with Easter and the first round of the French presidential election falling that month adding further complications.
Up until this point May has controlled the clock, refusing to activate Article 50 until she had formed a negotiating plan and won approval from the British Parliament to do so despite calls from her counterparts in the EU for greater urgency and clarity. But the U.K. has the most to lose from not being able to strike a separation deal, handing leverage to the EU when Britain formally says it wants to leave the bloc.
The two years the U.K. legally has to find an accord is already set to be reduced by the need for the agreement to be ratified by the European Parliament before Britain withdraws. May’s ambition to line up a divorce settlement and a new trade deal within the diminishing timeframe is already in question.
The European Commission signaled this week that it won’t drag its heels once May triggers Article 50 and will be ready to give ministers negotiating drafts without delay.
“We stand ready to launch negotiations quickly,” Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels on Monday. Once the leaders have adopted their guidelines, “the commission would then immediately issue a recommendation to open the negotiations” for the Europe ministers to authorize.