Britain will not start exit talks with the European Union until “our objectives are clear” and that won’t be this year, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday, at her first meeting with an EU leader as the UK begins the long, uncertain process of leaving the bloc.
May met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, on her first foreign trip as Britain’s leader. At a joint news conference, the two women conveyed a desire to work together but little sense of urgency, or a concrete idea of how the complex divorce process will play out.
May said Britain won’t invoke Article 50 of the EU constitution, triggering formal exit talks, this year. “All of us will need time to prepare for these negotiations,” she said.
Merkel signaled that Germany was prepared to wait.
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She said “it is up to the British government to define its principles for the EU exit and also to trigger the necessary steps.” She said “it’s only then that negotiations for the exit can take place.”
Merkel said “nobody wants a long-term stalemate,” but it was reasonable to give Britain time to prepare carefully. A week ago May replaced David Cameron, who resigned in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the 28-nation bloc.
May’s office said her first foreign trip, which also includes a visit to French President Francois Hollande, will help forge “the personal relations that will pave the way for open and frank discussions in the months ahead.”
May said today that while she doesn’t underestimate the challenge of negotiating the British exit, she firmly believes “that being able to talk frankly and openly about the issues we face will be an important part of a successful negotiation.”
The thorniest issue is likely to be the trade-off between access to Europe’s single market which the British economy relies on and control of immigration. EU leaders are unlikely to give Britain full access to the market unless it accepts the EU principle of free movement of people among member states.
Facing her first weekly prime minister’s question session in the House of Commons today, May did not answer directly when asked if Britain would be willing to leave the single market in order to guarantee migration controls.