The UK is expected to launch formal talks to leave the European Union in January or February next year, one of Europe’s top leaders said after a special summit without Britain, aimed at rallying the bloc battered by Brexit and the migration crisis.
The European council president, Donald Tusk, said the British prime minister, Theresa May, had told him article 50 was likely to be triggered in January or February next year, dashing remain voters’ hopes of delaying the UK’s departure from the EU.
The British government was also sent a stark warning not to expect any compromise on the EU’s cherished principle of free movement of people if it wants access to the single market.
Speaking of his meeting with May in London last week, Tusk said the prime minister had been open and honest about her difficulties in launching EU exit talks this year.
“She declared that it was almost impossible to trigger article 50 this year but it’s quite likely that they will be ready, maybe in January, maybe in February, next year.” He said the rest of the EU was ready to start negotiations tomorrow.
Standing at his side, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European commission, vowed there would be no compromise on free movement of workers. “This is not a game,” he said. “It is about the rights of ordinary people, of workers in Europe, so I can’t see any possibility of compromising on that very issue.”
A Downing Street source, however, said on Saturday that May did not specifically mention January or February at the meeting, and that Tusk’s comments were an interpretation of their conversation.
The PM “recognises the need to deliver on the public verdict without delay”, the source said.
Brexit was not top of the agenda at the one-day summit in Bratislava, as European leaders concentrated on charting a way forward for a bloc that has stumbled from crisis to crisis in recent years.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the EU was in “a critical situation” not only because of the Brexit referendum but also because of other difficulties.
It was only the second time in 43 years that EU leaders have met without the UK and the mood was solemn. At an earlier gathering the week after Brexit, EU leaders “were still shellshocked, but now it has sunk in”, one source said.
Nevertheless there was determination to show a united front – for a few hours at least.
During a lunchtime cruise along the Danube on a German-registered luxury boat and steered by a German captain, EU leaders quickly agreed to reassert their earlier pledge not to negotiate with the UK until the government invokes article 50.
Earlier in the day in the gilded halls of Bratislava castle, they had discussed what had gone wrong with the EU. One EU source described the discussions as polite and with no recriminations, a sharp change in tone following a ferocious war of words between Hungary and Luxembourg over asylum seekers.
The friendly tone partly dissipated, however, once leaders had left the castle walls.
Italy’s leader, Matteo Renzi, refused to appear at a press conference with his French and German counterparts, declaring that he “was not satisfied with the conclusions on growth and immigration”. Renzi, who faces a difficult referendum vote in October, said the EU was still far from meeting its post-Brexit challenges. On migration “the usual things were said again,” he said.
The same splits were on display as Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, slammed the EU’s migration policy as “self-destructive and naive”. Unless Germany imposed a firm ceiling on the number of immigrants it was willing to take in, a “suction effect” would continue to draw masses to Europe. “Something must happen,” he said.
The Visegrád group of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia reaffirmed their hostility to refugee quotas. In a surprise paper sent to EU leaders on the morning of the summit, the central European quartet also mounted a robust defence of free movement of labour, with an implicit critique of “intra-EU protectionism”. The move follows debates in France on foreign workers undercutting locals and the Brexit vote centred on immigration.
These countries will be staunch defenders of the principle of free movement of people in any talks with the UK. Brexit must avoid “the risk of creating second-rate citizens in the United Kingdom,” said Robert Fico, Slovakia’s prime minister. Brexit negotiations should “not damage our interests” and must show “it is worth being a member of the EU,” he said.
In an effort to avoid confrontation, Tusk had steered the meeting to focus on areas the 27 leaders could agree on: a mix of plans on security, counter-terrorism and moves to take more control of globalisation against a backdrop of stubbornly-high youth unemployment in southern Europe.
Countries pledged to send border guards and more equipment to the secure the EU’s external border in Bulgaria, although exact numbers have yet to be finalised. Earlier this week, Juncker called for an extra 200 border guards and 50 vehicles to be stationed at the Bulgarian frontier by next month.
On paper, leaders also promised immediate implementation of a joint declaration with Nato, after signing a cooperation pact in July aimed at overcoming decades of debate about securing Europe’s borders. France and Germany have swung behind plans for a common European defence headquarters and shared military hardware, and EU leaders have now promised to agree a common plan by December.
Big questions remain unresolved, kicked down the road to further summits in 2017. Tusk said the Bratislava meeting had paved the way for agreeing a range of economic and security measures in March 2017, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the European project.
Few observers, however, expect serious changes such as far-reaching reform of the eurozone until French and German elections are completed later next year.