Irish PM says Brexit ‘impossible’ within two years

Posted on November 25, 2016

The Irish prime minister has said it will be “impossible” to agree Brexit within two years, in the strongest rejection so far of the UK’s negotiating timetable by an EU leader.

Enda Kenny, who is seen as one of Britain’s allies in the process, said “there’s a growing feeling in Europe that there should be a transition period, and that the transition period will be longer than those two years — I think it will be.”

Earlier, Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister, suggested that Britain’s departure from the EU could be delayed “at the very end of the process”, citing a possible veto by the European Parliament as a possibility. “It will get complicated. Divorces are never easy, I think,” Mr Muscat said.

The warnings are a potential headache for Theresa May, who has insisted that Britain will trigger Article 50, the EU’s official exit clause, by the end of March. That would begin a two-year negotiating period that could only be extended by the unanimous agreement of other member states.

The prime minister’s approach has been criticised by some hardline Brexiters, who argue that Britain should be prepared to abandon the Article 50 process and trade with the rest of the EU on World Trade Organisation rules. Some pro-EU politicians, meanwhile, argue that Britain should delay triggering Article 50 until after the French and German elections next year in order to make best use of the two-year period.

A British general election is due by May 2020, providing a potential complication should Brexit talks extend beyond two years. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has also said he will leave his post in mid-2019, a decision that appeared to assume that Brexit would have been completed by that date.

Since the referendum in June, diplomats have expressed scepticism that Britain could negotiate the terms of its exit from the EU and a new trade relationship with the bloc within two years.

In contrast, Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s head negotiator, said that Brexit must happen before the next parliamentary elections in May or June 2019. “I can’t imagine we start the next legislative cycle without agreement over UK withdrawal,” he said in September. François Hollande, the French president, has also said that “everything must be completed by 2019”.

Mrs May has not ruled out a transitional post-Brexit agreement, or continued contributions to the EU budget. In an interview with the Financial Times, Wolfgang Schäuble, the German chancellor, said that Britain might have to keep paying in until 2030.

Questions have been raised about the readiness of Britain’s civil service for Brexit negotiations.

In this week’s Budget, Philip Hammond, chancellor, announced up to £412m in additional funding between now and 2020 for the three main departments — the Department of Exiting the EU, the Department of International Trade and the Foreign Office. Other departments, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, are also expected to need increased resources.

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