LONDON • Britain's departure from the European Union could be delayed until late 2019 as civil servants struggle with the task while French and German elections may hold up the start of exit negotiations.
Prime Minister Theresa May's government has indicated that it is planning to trigger Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which would start a two-year countdown to leaving the bloc, early next year.
But the Sunday Times newspaper said ministers had privately warned senior figures in the City of London financial sector that this may not now happen until later in 2017, delaying Brexit until late 2019. "Ministers are now thinking the trigger could be delayed to autumn 2017," said one City source who had spoken to two senior ministers on the issue.
"They don't have the infrastructure for the people they need to hire. They say they don't even know the right questions to ask when they finally begin bargaining with Europe."
Mrs May created a new ministry to oversee Brexit talks following the June 23 referendum vote to leave the EU, but the minister in charge, Mr David Davis, has reportedly only hired about half of the staff that he needs.
WHERE TO START
They don't have the infrastructure for the people they need to hire. They say they don't even know the right questions to ask when they finally begin bargaining with Europe.
A CITY SOURCE
Asked about the reported delay to triggering Article 50, a government spokesman said: "The Prime Minister has been clear that a top priority for this government is to deliver the decision of the British people to leave the EU and make a success of Brexit. The PM has set out the government's position on Article 50 and has established a new department dedicated to taking forward the negotiations."
There was an early sign of tension between the pro-Brexit members of Mrs May's Cabinet in a report that International Trade Minister Liam Fox had clashed with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson over the remit of his new department.
Mr Fox said economic diplomacy - policies concerning trade and Britain's economic ties - should be transferred to his department, according to a letter quoted in The Sunday Telegraph. Mr Johnson had firmly rejected Mr Fox's demands, the newspaper said.
The spokesman said that the government did not comment on leaked documents.
An unnamed Cabinet minister also told The Sunday Times there were "some challenges" in the German and French electoral timetables. France has presidential elections in April and May next year, and Germany has elections in the autumn.
With the looming prospect of a recession following the Brexit vote, British Finance Minister Philip Hammond announced that Britain will fill a gap of as much as £4.5 billion (S$6 billion) in funding for agriculture, universities and its regions that will open up when the country leaves the EU.
Scientists, farmers and others who receive EU funding are facing uncertainty after the vote, but Mr Hammond reassured them that the British government would pick up the tab.
According to Full Fact, an independent fact-checking agency, the British government paid about £13 billion to the EU last year, after its automatic rebate, and got back £4.5 billion in funding.
"Clearly if we stopped making contributions to the European Union, there will be money available to be invested in our own economy," Mr Hammond told reporters on Saturday.
AGENCED FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS