Germany has ruled out any possibility of informal talks on Britain leaving the EU before it files formal notice of its intention to go, dealing a major blow to the Brexit campaign’s leaders.
As the US secretary of state, John Kerry, warned in Brussels that the UK’s departure would have “consequences” demanding “sensitive, thoughtful, responsible and strategic” leadership, chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said only Britain could start the exit process.
If the government decided it needed “a reasonable amount of time to do that, we respect that”, Steffen Seibert said. But he cautioned: “One thing is clear – before Great Britain has sent this notification, there will be no informal preliminary talks about the exit modalities.”
One day before a crunch Brussels EU summit, Merkel herself told reporters she had “a certain amount of understanding” for the fact that Britain may need “a certain amount of time to analyse things”, but added that a “long-term suspension” would serve no one’s interests.
Eager to avoid a domino effect in other Eurosceptic member states, European leaders have said they want the UK to make a swift start on the marathon task of extricating itself from the bloc by triggering article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, the untested procedure governing how a member state leaves, as soon as possible.
But London has so far shown no sign of wanting to launch formal exit proceedings, with David Cameron, who resigned on Friday, leaving the task to his successor, and leading Brexit campaigners including Boris Johnson demanding informal withdrawal talks before locking Britain into the strict two-year timeframe laid down in the article 50 process.
Brussels has also emphatically ruled out informal talks on a possible trade deal before the UK triggers article 50. “No notification, no negotiation,” one official said on Sunday. A diplomat added: “If they treat their referendum as a non-event, we will also treat their referendum as a non-event.”
At the start of three days of frantic diplomacy to contain the fallout from Britain’s historic leave vote, Kerry said after meeting the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, that the US would do everything it could to make the transition “as sensible as possible”.
But Kerry, who was flying on to meet the British foreign secretary Philip Hammond in London, stressed the divorce would have consequences. “Does that mean it doesn’t present difficulties? No there are challenges. Does that mean it is without any impact? No clearly that is not possible either, because there are consequences.”
He also warned all concerned to keep their heads, saying it was “absolutely essential that we stay focused on how, in this transitional period, nobody loses their head, nobody goes off half-cocked, people don’t start ginning up scatterbrained or revengeful premises”.
The president of the European council, Donald Tusk, is is to meet the French president, François Hollande, in Paris before they fly together to Berlin for talks with Merkel and Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, ahead of the summit.
The president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, warned this weekend that a period of limbo would “lead to even more insecurity” and said the Brussels summit was the right time to begin formal exit proceedings.
There was pressure, too, from within Merkel’s own government: the head of her Social Democrat coalition partners, Sigmar Gabriel, called for “decisive action instead of indecision” and another senior party member, Axel Schäfer, said the party would “not tolerate it for a single day if chancellor bends over to Cameron’s time frame at Tuesday’s EU summit”.
Finland’s prime, Juha Sipila, said Britain should leave “as soon as possible”. Describing Britain an “exceptionally important partner both for Finland and the EU”, he acknowledged it needed “some time to bring its own ranks into line” and that a suitable time to begin the exit process would be early autumn.
Cameron is due to attend the Tuesday evening summit dinner before going back to London, leaving the remaining 27 member states to discuss on Wednesday how to handle the biggest blow to the bloc in its 60-year history.
EU officials have said it would be “unrealistic” to expect Cameron to launch the exit process at a time when Britain was in “a very significant political crisis, not only of the leadership of the ruling party … but a crisis that goes much deeper”.
The EU has no legal means to force Britain to launch the exit process and diplomats in Brussels are now tending to the view that the UK should trigger article 50 by the end of the year at the latest, allowing it time to leave the EU before European parliament elections and the appointment of a new European commission in 2019.
Some, however, have warned Britain “may never” trigger the formal divorce process because the tight deadline for talks puts the leaver in a weak position. “I personally believe they will never notify,” one diplomat said. “The moment you push the button you’re in a stupid negotiating position.”
Hollande declared this weekend there was no going back on Brexit, saying: “What was once unthinkable has become irreversible.” Hollande said France and Germany must use their strong friendship to seize the initiative, warning that “separated, we run the risk of divisions, dissension and quarrels”.
He and Merkel, who has urged calm and stressed that the timing of Britain’s exit should be left to London, had discussed the issue by phone. An aide said the leaders of the two countries that have traditionally formed the EU’s driving force were in “full agreement on how to handle the situation”.
The French finance minister, Michel Sapin, said there was no difference between France and Germany on the timetable for a withdrawal. “Should Britain go quickly?” he said. “Yes. France, like Germany, thinks that Britain voted for Brexit, and Brexit should be put in place starting now.”
Günther Oettinger, Germany’s commissioner, also sounded a warning note: “Every day of uncertainty prevents investors from putting their funds into Britain, and also other European markets,” he said. “Cameron and his party will cause damage if they wait until October.”
Renzi also said Brussels could not afford to spend a “year on procedures” for Brexit. Briefing the Italian senate on Monday, Renzi said the EU had already “spent a year on negotiations” aimed at satisfying Britain ahead of the referendum.
The commission also meets this afternoon to prepare the ground for the summit.Jonathan Hill, the British commissioner, who dramatically resigned on Saturday but remains in office until mid-July, will attend.
Once the Tory peer stands down, handing over the powerful job of financial markets to Valdis Dombrovskis, the man in charge of the euro, Britain will have no commissioner round the table at the EU’s executive. Downing Street has said Cameron will leave the decision on a replacement to his successor.
Diplomats in Brussels, meanwhile, have not held back on their criticism of Cameron’s catastrophic decision to ignore their warnings and go ahead with a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
Cameron reportedly told the commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, at a 2014 G20 summit that he could win a referendum “by a margin of 70 to 30”. Juncker replied that even Luxembourg would not vote to stay in the EU by such a big majority, according to one EU diplomat.
Brussels insiders are also frustrated and angry that Cameron did not use the UK reform deal – painstakingly agreed by all EU member states in February – to defend the EU during the campaign. “You don’t reverse a perception between 19 February and 23 June that you have created,” the diplomat said.
As shockwaves from the Brexit vote continued to spread, EU officials also said on Sunday the bloc was preparing to move its European Banking Authority from London, setting up a race led by Paris and Frankfurt to host the regulator.