EU ministers have set out the next stage of their Brexit negotiating stance – and pointedly took just two minutes to agree terms.
A diplomatic row has broken out between Britain and the EU over the rule of law and when the final Brexit deal needs to be reached.
In a clear message to Theresa May and the UK’s Brexit negotiators, it took just two minutes for European ministers to agree their negotiating stance.
They insisted that Britain should be able to stay in the single market and enjoy the economic benefits of EU membership during the transition period.
But the pay-off is that Britain must obey all EU laws, including any new ones, during this time – even after the UK has been removed from decision-making bodies.
“The single market cannot be a la carte,” said EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
And the stance would mean Britain sticking to EU laws for at least 20 months after the expected official Brexit date.
On the first official day of transition talks in 2018, Mr Barnier went on to say that negotiations should conclude by October to allow time for EU27 countries and the European Parliament to vote on decisions.
But during a grilling from the House of Lords, the UK’s Brexit Secretary David Davis threatened to hold out for longer to ensure demands on the future relationship are met.
Mr Davis said he expected Britain’s stance on a final deal would “push it a bit later”.
“We won’t want to sign the withdrawal agreement until we’ve got the substance of the future relationship ironed out as well,” he said.
“The last quarter of the year is about where we’re aiming at.”
Mr Barnier appeared to come back with a rebuke for the Brexit Secretary’s suggestion that it was only an “aim” to conclude talks by the end of this year.
Speaking in Brussels, the EU official said: “This is a major historic agreement and will take time in the British Parliament. We are working towards the end of October.”
Their statement offered the UK a “status quo transition without institutional representation” from March 2019 until the end of 2020.
The Government has already indicated it is willing to comply with most of the EU’s demands to move talks on to the future relationship between London and Brussels.
Mr Davis conceded in his questioning from the Lords EU committee that “it’s not exactly the same as membership, but it’s very, very similar”.
But the comments prompted near-civil war in the Conservative party to break out into Parliament.
MP Anna Soubry called on the Government to “stand up against the hard Brexiteers, who mainly inhabit these benches” and “see them off” – claiming there are “only 35 of them”.
There are 48 Tory MPs needed to call a leadership contest to replace Theresa May.
Meanwhile, some Leave figures in her own party claimed it will be “Brexit in name only” that is delivered.
Downing Street waded in to try and avert a crisis, highlighting the “differences” between the UK and the EU on the transition period.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said on Monday: “I think there is broad agreement on the principle of an implementation period being in the interests of both sides, but on the specific detail you would expect there to be some differences.
“That is obviously what will be negotiated.”
As Mrs May met her Brexit “inner circle” in London, Downing Street refused to comment on claims that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had told reporters that whenever she asks Mrs May what she is seeking, the Prime Minister answers: “Make me an offer.”