European politicians on Monday welcomed British Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement of a starting date for formal negotiations with the European Union on Brexit–but warned the U.K. shouldn’t expect talks to start before then.
In a highly-anticipated speech on Sunday, Mrs. May said she will trigger Article 50 of EU treaties by the end of March, setting off a two-year period of negotiations with the EU on the terms of the U.K.’s departure from the bloc. Other EU governments have been pressing for the Article 50 talks to start as soon as possible, to avoid uncertainty.
Mrs. May also expressed hope that announcing the date will allow for some “preparatory work, so that once the trigger comes we have a smoother process of negotiation,” speaking to the British Broadcasting Corporation on Sunday.
Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who presided over a joint meeting with the leaders of Belgium and the Netherlands on Monday, said that Mrs. May’s announcement “is a good decision for the U.K. as well as for the EU.”
“Negotiations can start after Article 50 is triggered,” he said.
The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm which will carry out the negotiations under the guidance of EU governments, also warned Monday that no talks will take place before March.
“We will work constructively on the basis of a notification, not of a speech. There will be no negotiations until the notification arrives,” said Margaritis Schinas, the commission’s main spokesman.
When Article 50 notification arrives, “we are prepared and ready to engage constructively and in good faith,” he added.
Meanwhile, leaders will “meet and talk without necessarily negotiating” with Mrs. May. For example, commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker will have a bilateral meeting with her on the sidelines of an EU summit on Oct. 21-22, Mr. Schinas said. He said the only preparatory work at this point is being carried out by the commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who took office on Saturday and who is setting up his team and sounding out capitals ahead of the March negotiations.
Mrs. May’s focus on immigration control and leaving the jurisdiction of the EU’s top court suggests she will push for a trade agreement with the EU–a so-called ‘hard Brexit’–rather than seeking to maintain her country’s membership of the single market, which would include following the rulings of the EU’s top court and the obligation to allow free movement of workers from other EU countries.
“If we’re headed toward a hard Brexit, it’s much easier for us, we’ve done it a few times before,” one EU official said, in reference to trade deals between the EU and other countries.
“But the key issue will be the access of financial services to the EU single market. That hasn’t been part of any trade deal so far,” the official added.
Regardless of the form of U.K.’s new relations with the EU post-Brexit, some governments are already wary about the fate of their citizens now living in the U.K.
Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevi?ius, whose country has seen 6.9% of its 2.9 million people move to the U. K.–said Monday that “it is really important for us how they will preserve their rights and won’t be discriminated [against].”
“There were some promises in regards to those who have lived more than six years in the U.K., it was said they won’t face any major changes. I believe there are also U.K. citizens living in the EU, maybe they are interested in preserving some rights. This is a normal, natural process, ” the minister said.
He said Lithuania would like a special status for the U.K. keeping it “as close as possible to European Union, in all aspects: trade, economy, security.”
“They should make it clear what they are going to do…How far they are going to go. What it means. It is not yet answered. It is not yet clear, ” Mr. Linkevi?ius said.