BREXIT ministers will have to resolve some 7,000 issues surrounding the UK’s withdrawal from the EU in less than two years – and not a single one has yet been dealt with.
With formal talks set to begin tomorrow, the scale of the task awaiting Theresa May’s minority government is only now becoming clearer, with EU officials sceptical of reaching a deal in the agreed timeframe.
Despite EU sources predicting chaos, leave campaigner Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, hit back today saying there was ample time.
UK civil servants in Brussels have reportedly already drawn up more than 7,000 issues that need to be addressed between now and the 2019 deadline.
One EU source told the Mail on Sunday: “They are keeping tally and people think of new things every day.”
Having ploughed through with her plans to trigger Article 50 in March, the PM has already wasted 70 days’ of valuable negotiating time and now enters discussions with a minority government and doubts over her hard Brexit plans.
The decision by Brexit minister David Davis not to “show our hand” by revealing the UK’s position on any issue is also now looking dubious, as the workload stacks up with the clock ticking down.
A European Parliament source said: “The general feeling is they’ve wasted enough time and she [Theresa may] has scored a massive own goal.”
Another EU official said the UK government was only now raising questions with Brussels that “should have been closed and solved a year ago”.
But today Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May’s former Tory leadership rival, backed the Prime Minister.
She told BBC’s Sunday Politics: “When you have politicians right across the EU and in the United Kingdom who share the desire for a successful outcome with low tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, free trade between ourselves, cooperation on security and so on, it should be perfectly possible to meet the time frame.
“So I am extremely optimistic.”
Chancellor Philip Hammond also offered some succour to the embattled Prime Minister today, when he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that Britain would “definitely” leave the single market and the customs union as part of the divorce from the EU.
It was something of a U-turn for the Remain-backing Chancellor, who has previously made little secret of his preference for a soft Brexit.
Tomorrow Mr Davis will sit down for the first time with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, with the rights of UK-based EU citizens and the controversial Brexit bill top of the agenda.
Already there is an immediate friction between the two sides, with some EU ministers demanding Britain pay as much as £85billion (€100bn) to leave, while some in UK argue there should be no settlement at all.
Agreeing the rights of the 3.1m EU citizens already in the UK is also tricky, with Brussels still in the dark as to what Britain will offer.
Anything less than permanent protection of the rights already enjoyed by EU citizens would likely be met with a similar rejection of rights for the 1.3m British expats living in Europe.
But these two crucial issues, which are likely to require lengthy discussions, is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Sometime before March 2019, agreements will have to be reached on a huge array of topics, including farming, fishing, human rights, air travel and pet passports.
The UK is also keen to discuss the future relationship with the EU in tandem with the withdrawal agreement, but appears to have lost that particular battle with the European Commission.
According to the BBC, Brexit ministers have privately conceded that talks will follow the EU’s preferred pattern, with the future relations between the two sides to be decided once the withdrawal is agreed.