LONDON (AFP) - Britain's divorce from the European Union could be implemented gradually, but the terms of the break-up should be agreed within 18 months, Brexit minister David Davis said Wednesday (Dec 14).
Finance Minister Philip Hammond had said Monday (Dec 12) that a "transitional" arrangement could be "helpful" in cushioning the Brexit process, but Davis said Wednesday that such a deal should only be used to smooth the application of a final agreement, not as a staging post in negotiations.
Hardline eurosceptic Davis last week said he was "not really interested" in an interim deal and told a parliamentary committee Wednesday that such an agreement should be struck "only if it's necessary".
The government intends to begin the formal exit process by the end of March, starting the clock ticking on a two-year deadline to negotiate its departure and future relationship with the bloc.
However, European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier said earlier this month that talks to agree the terms of the divorce should be concluded in 18 months.
Hammond said there was an "emerging view" that "having a longer period to manage the adjustment between where we are now, as full members of the European Union, and where we get to in the future... would be generally helpful".
Davis told the Exiting the European Union Committee that he thought his finance minister was suggesting an arrangement to smooth implementation of the break-up, rather than a way to buy time to hammer out a final deal.
"The British people want this done with some degree of expedition. Barnier said 18 months and I think it is all negotiable in that time," Davis said.
"The Article 50 process was written to allow departure from the EU, plainly the architects of it thought it was time enough to do the job, and so do I," he added.
A parliamentary report to be released on Thursday (Dec 15) is expected to warn that uncertainty over EU single market access could threaten 200,000 jobs in Britain's financial services industry, unless a transition deal is agreed.
Brexit champion Nigel Farage has branded such a deal as a delaying tactic and evidence of "more backsliding".
Davis said there was still "work to be done" in formulating the government's Brexit strategy, and that the plan would not be published until February, at the earliest.
The minister warned that striking a trade deal would not be a simple case of agreeing cross-border tariffs, and that other barriers like EU red tape could be more important, particularly for Britain's strong service sector.
He added that the government's aim was for a "smooth and orderly" divorce that allowed "maximum market access with minimum of disruption" to British business.
The British economy has so far defied widespread predictions of a Brexit slowdown, with official figures released on Wednesday showing unemployment at its lowest level since 2005.