European Union Council President Donald Tusk said Tuesday that Brexit negotiations will not move to the next stage focused on trade relations before December at the earliest — not later this month, as Britain was hoping.
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Tusk bemoaned the slow pace of divorce negotiations with London and said it was still far too early to move to the next phase of planning a new trade relationship because the initial breakup talks have yet to reach "sufficient progress."
"We are negotiating in good faith, and we still hope that the so-called 'sufficient progress' will be possible by December," Tusk said.
He added that "if it turns out that the talks continue at a slow pace, then together with our U.K. friends we will have to think about where we are heading." He did not elaborate.
Negotiators are holding a fifth round of talks this week on divorce proceedings, centered on the rights of citizens in each other's nations once the breakup is complete, the border between Ireland and the U.K. and the financial commitments Britain will have to pay.
As a compromise on those issues remains elusive, both sides have said the onus is on the other to take the initiative. On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May insisted "the ball is in their court."
When asked about it following his lunch with his British counterpart David Davis, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier chided journalists chasing him and said: "Brexit is not a game. Don't forget it."
More than a year has passed since Britain voted to leave the EU, and six months since Britain triggered the two-year countdown to its EU exit.
On Monday, May said the U.K. was planning for the possibility that the two-year negotiating period might end without a deal.
Critics have accused the government of failing to prepare for a "no deal" Brexit, which would mean an end to tariff-free trade with the EU and would be a shock to the British economy.
May said Tuesday Britain wanted to strike a good deal with the EU, but "we have teams of people working on every possible outcome."
"If there is no deal, we have to be prepared for it," she told LBC radio.
Tusk insisted the EU is hoping to avoid that.
"We hear from London that the U.K. government is preparing for a 'no deal' scenario. I would like to say very clearly that the EU is not working on such a scenario," the EU leader insisted.
Lawless reported from London.