The European Union is ready to begin Brexit trade talks at the start of next year, but Britain must first meet its divorce terms in the next few weeks, diplomats and sources said.
EU countries are however worried about the effect on Brexit talks resuming Thursday from the wave of scandals rocking British Prime Minister Theresa May's government, they said.
"Everything is ready (to start trade talks) on the first of January," an EU diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Another European diplomat confirmed that "if we get sufficient progress in December, the EU 27 and (EU negotiator Michel (Euronext: MLRAM.NX - news) ) Barnier will be ready to discuss immediately -- say in January -- the future relationship."
A sixth round of Brexit negotiations takes place in Brussels on Thursday and Friday but officials say they are not expecting any breakthrough, not least because of the political situation in London.
An EU source said: "Everybody reads the papers. Of course they are very much aware of this internal political situation" in Britain.
The diplomat added: "We are a bit concerned about what we are seeing in the UK at the moment, we want a strong negotiating partner."
A deal on the three key divorce issues must be "made in time by the end of November, first week of December," the diplomat added.
That would allow time to prepare a formal decision by EU leaders at a summit on December 14-15 to move on to discussing future relations, including a trade deal.
The most contentious part of the divorce is an exit bill the EU has put at around 60 billion euros, but the bloc also demands progress on the Northern Irish border and the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.
Britain also wants to discuss a possible transitional phase for around two years after Brexit Day in March 2019 to ease the impact of its exit.
But with a full trade deals likely to take five years or more, one suggestion is that after a transition there could be a second semi-transitional period during which Britain joins the European Economic Area.
The EEA groups Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway with all EU states, but has no say over policy.
"Perhaps park (Britain) in EEA after the transition -- that could be one solution. Transition until maybe 2020 and end of the (current EU budget cycle), perhaps prolonged, then maybe you could do it," the diplomat said.