By Alastair Macdonald and Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's chief negotiator set a target of agreeing a Brexit deal with Britain by October 2018 assuming London keeps a promise of formally launching the process by the end of March.
Michel Barnier, giving a first news conference on Tuesday after two months in office, said the two-year deadline for final withdrawal fixed in Article 50 of the EU treaty meant there would be less than 18 months to run negotiations themselves.
If British Prime Minister Theresa May keeps her pledge to give formal notification of departure in March, it would take some weeks for the EU to launch the talks, Barnier said. After a deal was done, it would take months to have it ratified by Britain and by the other 27 member states of the Union.
That would allow Britain to be out of the Union before the next EU parliamentary election due in May 2019.
Barnier said it was too early to say whether and how any transition period might be agreed after Brexit to allow time for negotiations on a future UK-EU relationship. That would depend on what Britain wants in future and what the EU would accept.
"It's clear that the period of actual negotiations will be shorter than two years," he said. "All in all, there will be less than 18 months to negotiate."
He declined to go into what kind of relationship would be possible, though cited the example of Norway which is part of the EU single market on condition it pays into the EU budget and accepts free movement of people.
Asked about special measures for the UK-EU land border that would be created across the island of Ireland, he said he was very aware of the significance for the Northern Ireland peace process of the border and would try not to damage its success so far.
Barnier cited four principles that would govern the work of the EU negotiators: the other 27 would remain united; there would be no negotiations before Britain's notification; that Britain could not have a better deal outside the EU than inside; and that four key EU freedoms must be respected - in other words, London could not keep full market access but keep out immigrants.
"Cherry picking is not an option," he said.
Asked about debate in Britain over whether to seek a "hard" or "soft" Brexit, depending on how close a relationship was preserved at the end of the talks, Barnier said:
"Frankly, I do not know what a hard or a soft Brexit are.
"I can say what a Brexit is ... We want a clear agreement, we want to reach this agreement in the limited time we have available, we want it to take account of our point of view, the interests of the 27 as defined by the European Council, and something that preserves the unity of the 27."
Barnier, a former French minister who irked many in London when he was the EU financial services commissioner, opened with a joke referring to speculation about his English language skills and his preference for holding negotiations in French.
"English or French?" he asked as he took the podium. He spoke both during an initial address but answered questions mainly in French during the news conference.
He also ventured a pop culture reference in English, summing up his message to London as: "Keep calm and negotiate."
(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Marilyn Haigh, writing by Philip Blenkinsop, Editing by Gabriela Baczynska)