One of Brussels’ top officials has said that Britain is set to begin formal talks to leave the EU by February of next year, in a disclosure that adds to political pressure on Downing Street to start the Brexit divorce.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said that Theresa May, the British prime minister, told him in a meeting this week that a decision would probably come within the next five months.
“She declared it is almost impossible to trigger Article 50 this year. But she said it is quite likely they will be ready in maybe January or maybe February next year,” Mr Tusk said.
Speaking after an informal summit of EU countries, the first for 43 years not to include the UK, Mr Tusk reiterated Brussels’ position that no negotiations on Britain’s exit would take place before Article 50 was triggered.
His comments came as other EU leaders restated their intention to staunchly defend the principle that Britain will not be permitted to participate in the EU single market if it intends to restrict free movement of workers.
In spite of pressure in both Westminster and Brussels, Mrs May has scrupulously avoided being precise about when she would invoke Article 50, saying only that it would not happen in 2016. Triggering the divorce clause of the bloc’s treaty starts the clock on talks with a two-year deadline.
“We are well prepared for negotiations and could even start tomorrow. But we respect the needs of our British colleagues,” Mr Tusk said after the summit in Bratislava. “Our British colleagues need more time to prepare themselves.”
Mr Tusk said that while he would strive in negotiations to protect “as close as possible relations between the UK and the EU”, Brussels “must protect the interests of the remaining 27 states . . . and the European Community”.
Speaking alongside Mr Tusk, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico struck an aggressive tone, warning that he and other EU countries would not tolerate discrimination against EU citizens working in the single market.
“I will be perfectly frank. Unlike the UK, we know what we want. Our position is clear We will not allow this negotiation to damage our interest,” he said. “You cannot get away from the feeling that such negotiations run the risk of creating second-class citizens in the UK. That will be a crucial point for us in negotiations.”
Asked whether the EU would compromise on the core principles of the single market — the free movement of goods, capital, people and services — Jean Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, said: “There is a clear link between access to the single market and the basic principles of the internal market, especially the free movement of workers.
“We cannot see any possibility of compromise on this issue. We have this link between the internal market and the principles of the internal market.”
EU leaders have stressed the need for Article 50 notification before any negotiations on the substance of a divorce. However, talks have begun on how the UK and EU will manage the negotiations and Britain’s current rights as a member, including to vote on EU laws.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said: “Britain will continue to be part of the EU, with obligations and rights. Some decisions have to be made unanimously and this is something Donald Tusk will have to work out with Theresa May. But we also need to prepare our collaboration among the 27 of us.”