Substantive Brexit talks between the UK and the rest of the EU are unlikely to start before the end of 2017, former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy told the BBC.
As leaders of every EU country, apart from the UK, are gathering in the Slovakian capital Bratislava to discuss the future of the Union, Van Rompuy told the British broadcaster that the UK’s decision to leave the EU as a “political amputation”.
However, Van Rompuy said negotiations were unlikely until a new German government was formed after next September’s election.
The goes contrary to the wish of many EU leaders, including the president of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, who in his speech on the State of the Union in front of the EU Parliament on Wednesday 14 September urged British prime minister Theresa May to trigger Article 50 – the formal start of the process of leaving the EU
Van Rompuy described the senior figures appointed to negotiate for the EU, who include Belgian ex-Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and French finance expert Michel Barnier, as “very very tough” but also “very pragmatic”.
He denied leaders wanted to “punish” the UK for leaving, but said there was a desire not to encourage other countries to follow suit.
“Any negotiation will be a difficult negotiation, independent of the personalities. Of course we want an agreement which represents some kind of mutual benefit.
“There are huge economic interests, but there are also red lines. It is very well known that freedom of movement [of EU nationals] is a red line,” he said.
Mr Van Rompuy rejected suggestions that the EU should have given former Prime Minister David Cameron a better deal after he sought reform of the UK’s relationship with the EU, saying the main reason for the Brexit vote “lies in Britain”.
“Britain had not many friends anymore,” Mr Van Rompuy said.
This had been shown during the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission in 2014, when Britain was “isolated” in its opposition to him, he added.
Since the UK voted to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May has said it again and again: “Brexit means Brexit.”
Despite the mantra, though, it’s far from clear what a British exit from the bloc will look like. Almost three months after the vote, Britons and Europeans still don’t know when the departure will happen or how it will affect their work, travel, pocketbooks and prospects.
For now, Britain remains a member of the EU, though an increasingly detached one, as the other 27 countries start to move on. EU leaders meet Friday in Slovakia — without the UK — to try to steer a way past challenges including violent extremism, the refugee crisis and economic woes.
EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker acknowledged Wednesday that Britain’s departure was a blow.
“The world is getting bigger. And we are getting smaller,” he said. But he insisted “the European project continues,” and urged the U.K. to make its formal request to leave as quickly as possible.
However, Britain controls when divorce proceedings will begin — and it’s in no hurry. May has said she won’t invoke Article 50 of the EU constitution, the trigger for the exit process, until sometime in 2017. Negotiations are then supposed to take two years, but could conceivably be extended.