It will not be possible to sort out every aspect of Britain’s future relationship with the EU before the current deadline, the president of the European Commission has said.
Ursula von der Leyen warned that both sides will have to “prioritise” which elements are negotiated before the end of December 2020.
This is when the Brexit transition period – the timeframe which both sides will use to try and strike a free trade deal – comes to an end.
As it stands, Britain will leave the EU at the end of this month and then move into the transition period.
But opponents, and some senior figures in the EU, have warned that 11 months is not enough time to negotiate a free trade deal.
Ms von der Leyen, who took up her role last month, echoed such fears during a speech in London on Wednesday.
She told an audience at the London School of Economics: “Without an extension of the transition period beyond 2020, you cannot expect to agree on every single aspect of our new partnership.
“We will have to prioritise.”
The warning raises the prospect of the EU only countenancing a skeleton free trade deal before the end of 2020 in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
Ms von der Leyen said the bloc was ready to agree a new partnership that was “zero tariffs, zero quotas, zero dumping – a partnership that goes well beyond trade and is unprecedented in scope”.
But she warned London that there will be “consequences” if it decides not to align with EU rules post-Brexit.
Mr Johnson has said the UK will not follow the bloc’s rules after Brexit, but Ms von der Leyen said this would mean a “distant” future relationship.
“Our partnership cannot and will not be the same as before,” she told her audience.
“It will not be as close as before because with every choice comes a consequence. With every decision, comes a trade-off.
“Without the free movement of people, you cannot have the free movement of capital, goods and services.
“Without a level playing field on environment, labour and state aid, you cannot have the highest quality access to the world’s largest single market.
“The more divergence there is, the more distant the partnership will be.”
Ms von der Leyen said Britain’s exit day on 31 January would be “tough and emotional”.
However, she went on to say: “But when the sun rises again on February 1, the United Kingdom and the European Union will still be the best of friends and partners.
“The bonds between us will still be unbreakable.”