EU officials said member states have not ruled out giving their consent for the UK to actively seek free trade agreements across the globe even whilst still in the Single Market and Customs Union.
The remarks will be seen as a significant olive branch to Downing Street, which has always maintained Britain must be able to plan for its future whilst decoupling itself from the bloc.
Diplomats also said that member states are now likely to get more closely involved in talks on a second phase of negotiations on trade, having taken a hands-off approach to the technical divorce issues.
Britain and the EU are set to embark on a second, crucial round of talks about their future partnership after the two sides agreed a text that will unlock sufficient progress at next week’s Council summit.
EU officials have published a brief, two-page set of guidelines for how they see the negotiations on a transition and future partnership unfolding, but say they now need proposals from the UK.
Diplomats today expressed some disquiet at revelations that the Cabinet has not even discussed what kind of relationship it wants with the EU yet and warned the clock is ticking.
A senior EU official urged: “We can have the negotiating mandate quite quickly. We need more clarity from the UK. That reflects something that has been the case throughout these negotiations.”
Eurocrats said technically talks on a trade deal between the UK and EU could begin at one minute past 11pm British time on March 29, 2019 – the exact point at which Britain will have technically left the club.
Until then the two sides can work on a “framework” for that trading relationship which lays out in some detail what both sides want. The pact could not legally come into force until after the end of a transition in 2021.
The same principle would apply to any FTAs the UK chose to negotiate – whether that be copy and pasting current EU agreements with the likes of Canada or constructing new ones with countries such as the US.
The EU official said: “What’s technically clear is that no agreement wth third countries could come into force during this period of time because then’d we’d no longer have the same rules vis-a-vis the rest of the world.
“But otherwise we don’t take a position on this. This is something that will have to be discussed in the negotiations. We don’t say that it [Britain] can’t negotiate. The UK should come to us and tell us how they see this.”
The official revealed that whilst member states “trust” chief negotiator Michel Barnier they are also likely to take a much more hands on interest in the talks from now on.
They said: “This is so important for member states that the heads want to continue to stay closely involved. They want to know exactly what we’re heading for particularly when it comes to the future relationship.”
A second senior official said that if Britain wants to copy and paste the deals it currently enjoys with third countries via the EU, that is a matter for the UK and those other countries.
But they added that, unless an agreement is reached, Britain will legally have to exit those deals at the point it leaves the bloc in March 2019 even though it will still be in the Single Market and Customs Union.