Brexit trade deal talks with the EU aren't even set to kick off before March - let alone finish quickly, Brussels chiefs warned today.

The European Commission said it will "take some time" to agree its starting position despite Downing Street saying the UK was ready to talk from February 1.

The news is a blow to Boris Johnson - as it means he will only have 10 months, not 11, to secure a trade deal with the EU before a December 31 deadline.

The Tory leader has ruled out extending the "transition period" beyond that date, and if there's no deal EU rules will end at the stroke of 11pm on New Year's Eve.

A similar trade deal between the EU and Canada took seven years.

Downing Street today insisted: "We are ready to begin discussions with the EU from February 1."

But European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the process of agreeing the EU's position could only begin after Brexit .

New European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

"This, we know, will take some time, which is why we have said we will start negotiations as quickly as we can, but it will certainly not be before the end of February, beginning of March," he said.

"This is not a slowing down or speeding up of the process.

"This is simply the nature of the institutional process and the consultations that need to take place before the negotiation directives can be formally adopted."

The delay leaves open the option of the UK beginning trade talks with the US before negotiations begin with Brussels.

Officials would not be drawn on a timetable for UK-US negotiations, but the two sides have made "extensive preparations".

Downing Street did not rule out starting US talks before EU talks.

Downing Street did not rule out starting US talks before EU talks

Donald Trump has repeatedly spoken of his desire to reach an agreement with Mr Johnson, and the timing of the US presidential election means that a deal in the summer of 2020 could be his goal.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We are free to begin discussions with countries around the world from February 1. We are ready to begin discussions with the EU from February 1.

"The EU have various processes to go through before they are ready to sit down and have those discussions with us."

The UK remains committed to agreeing a deal with Brussels by the end of the year.

"The EU have agreed formally to complete this process by December 2020, that is what we would expect to be achieved," the spokesman said.

Read More

Latest UK politics news

A row has already erupted over the EU's insistence that UK rules will need to align with those of the EU's single market.

Mr Mamer said: "There is a link between moving away from EU regulations and the degree of access that is possible into the single market."

Downing Street today insisted there would not be automatic alignment. But a spokesman appeared not to rule out the UK choosing it as an option later on.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said the new situation would mean "it will be the UK which determines its own rules and laws".

"It will not be a ruletaker from Brussels or the EU's institutions."