The U.K. may need to wait until June before it begins discussing its exit from the European Union, giving it less time to strike a deal.
Prime Minister Theresa May is set to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – which officially informs its European partners that the U.K. is ready to negotiate Brexit – by the end of this month. It is up to European capitals to take the next step and it could take until June to kick off negotiations.
A European official who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the process explained that once Article 50 is triggered, the 27 leaders will convene at a summit to jointly adopt their guidelines for the negotiations.
Bearing in mind that it takes up to four weeks to prepare a summit, the meeting could happen in late April or even at the start of May.
The third step of the process involves the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, which has to prepare the document outlining what the EU wants and doesn't want from this process. The European Commission has said that this should be quick, happening "immediately" after the summit.
Lastly, foreign ministers gather to decide and announce that the negotiations are open from the European side too.
At the moment, foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on May 16th and June 20th.
The first date could be tight if the U.K. delays notification, which makes June 20th a more likely date for the start of the talks. Foreign ministers could alternatively agree to have an extraordinary meeting before June 20th to begin negotiations with London.
The main problem is that once the U.K. triggers Article 50, a race against time begins. EU law states that there is a two-year deadline to agree on how a member state wants to leave the Union and that clock begins as soon as Prime Minister May notifies Europe.
Given the complexity of the process of leaving the EU, if London and Brussels only begin addressing it in June, the chances that they will reach an agreement by March 2019 are slim.