Theresa May’s hope of securing a free trade agreement within the two-year Brexit deadline is “out of the question”, a veteran Brussels insider has said.
Former European Commission vice president Viviane Reding said it was wishful thinking on the Prime Minister’s part to believe that a trade agreement could be reached within the timeframe set out under the Article 50 process.
Mrs May is poised to invoke Article 50, the formal mechanism for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, by the end of the month after Parliament approved the legislation for her to take the step.
She wants to secure a trade deal alongside the UK’s “divorce” settlement from Brussels during the two years allowed under Article 50.
But Ms Reding, now an MEP for Luxembourg, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “Two years is out of the question. It is completely wishful thinking and unrealistic.”
She also indicated that voters in Europe were “fed up” about Brexit and the issue was not a “top priority”.
She said: “They are fed up, really fed up because they feel that a British problem is forced on us.
“It is not our problem, Brexit, we have never asked for this. It is also not our priority. It seems to be the British top priority, it is certainly not a European top priority.”
Former UK diplomats also highlighted the tight timetable for Brexit talks, with the need for the European Parliament to ratify any deal and domestic elections in countries including Germany limiting the time for negotiations.
With Mrs May not expected to trigger Article 50 until late March, EU leaders will not consider their response until mid to late April.
Former UK ambassador to the EU Sir Stephen Wall told the programme: “You may find that the actual mandate isn’t agreed until some time late in May or even, potentially, early in June. So the negotiations would start, but then of course at the end of July everybody goes to the beach.”
Former Foreign Office mandarin Sir Simon Fraser told Today: “At ministerial and political level it may be that the negotiation period is not a great deal longer than a year, if you follow that timeline and the requirement for, first of all, having the German election finished and then at the end having a ratification period.”