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U.K. Plays Down Report Brexit Trade Deal Could Take 10 Years

Updated on
  • BBC reports Ivan Rogers’s private advice to Premier May’s team
  • Says national parliaments could still kill new free-trade deal

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s office downplayed remarks attributed to a British diplomat that it could take 10 years to negotiate a final free-trade deal with the European Union after Brexit -- and that even then it could fail.

The BBC reported that Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the EU, had said most countries in the bloc expect a final free-trade agreement would not be struck until the mid-2020s. In a private briefing for Prime Minister Theresa May’s team in October, Rogers warned that even after a decade of talks, the deal could still be scuppered by any one of the EU’s 27 other national parliaments, which would have the power to ratify or reject it, according to the report, which May’s office did not deny.

“The government is fully confident of negotiating a deal within the time frame we have already established,” May’s spokesman, Greg Swift, told reporters in London on Thursday. “It’s wrong to suggest that this is advice from our ambassador -- he is reflecting views that were put to him which is a role that all ambassadors have.”

The 10-year warning echoes comments from EU diplomats made earlier this year, as well as warnings from the U.K. Treasury before the Brexit referendum in June that a vote to leave the EU would usher in “a decade or more of uncertainty” while negotiations take place. Rogers has an important role in the Brexit process and is an experienced diplomat who worked on David Cameron’s attempted renegotiation of the U.K.’s membership before the referendum.

Two-Year Timetable

Since she took office, May has been determined to talk up the prospects for a quick and good deal. Her spokesman insisted that an exit deal and a new trade deal will be possible within the two-year timetable for talks, despite warnings from the European Commission negotiator, Michel Barnier, that parallel exit and trade discussions would be legally impossible. 

“The intention is that we will have a deal within the time frame that we’ve set out which sees us exit the European Union and allows us to trade with and operate in the single European market,” Swift said.

In the U.K. Parliament, one minister suggested Rogers’s warnings reflect the difficulty of estimating how much time it would take to complete a trade accord. “It is very, very difficult to establish how long any trade deal will take,” Trade Minister Mark Garnier said. Rogers was reflecting the views of other EU member states “and this does not necessarily define how long it will take” to reach an agreement, Garnier added.

Brexit Secretary David Davis told lawmakers on Wednesday that he still believed it would be possible to agree to the final “end game” of Brexit within the two years that will be available for talks after May triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. But he accepted in public for the first time that a transition period may be needed during the “implementation phase” of the final trading arrangement.

“We have to try to stick to the timetable,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told reporters in Brussels as he arrived for a summit of EU leaders. “The whole Brexit negotiations will be so very complex.”

— With assistance by Alex Morales, Ian Wishart, and John Ainger

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