Europe's top trade negotiator has told the UK it might not be able to negotiate a trade deal until it has formally left the European Union.
When asked what her plans were for a new relationship between the EU and the UK, Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU trade commissioner and one of the most powerful officials in Brussels, told the BBC yesterday: "First you exit, then you negotiate".
The comments are the latest sign that the EU is not prepared to back down from taking a hard line with the UK once it has triggered Article 50.
Malmstrom's statement, however, raises the prospect the EU will not even begin to consider a trade deal with the UK until after the two-year period of exit has run its course.
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If the EU adopts this course of action, it means the negotiations once Article 50 has been triggered would probably focus on untangling the UK from the EU institutions and striking agreements on other areas, such as foreign affairs and justice.
Failure to strike any kind of deal on trade or to keep close access to the single market would mean the UK reverts to selling to and buying from the EU on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules that could result in steep tariffs.
"They would be a third country," Malmstrom said, referring to the term used to describe nations outside the EU.
David Cameron has insisted the decision to invoke Article 50 will be left for his successor, who will be in place on 9 September.