The European Commission, which coordinates trade policy for the 28-member EU, said that its decision to start the process would be published in the EU official journal on Feb. 12, triggering a countdown that could run until August 2020.
With the clock ticking down to March 29, the date set in law for Britain to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom is in the deepest political crisis in half a century as it grapples with how, or even whether, to exit the European project it joined in 1973.
"It is now up to the British to indicate what they want," he told reporters in The Hague in reaction to Tuesday's vote against Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal. "We have a little bit more time, but it is really going down to the wire."
Parliament voted 432-202 against her deal, the worst parliamentary defeat for a government in recent British history. Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn promptly called a vote of no confidence in May's government, to be held within 24 hours.
On Tuesday, members of parliament called on police to do more to tackle intimidation of politicians and journalists outside parliament after protesters yelled abuse at a prominent Conservative lawmaker.