British Prime Minister Theresa May heads to Paris today for Brexit talks with French President Francois Hollande after Germany agreed to give Britain more time to prepare its withdrawal from the EU.
On her first foreign trip since taking office in the wake of Britain’s seismic June referendum, May told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that her government would not ask to leave the EU before the end of 2016 in order to plan a “sensible and orderly departure”.
Ahead of the meeting in Paris, Hollande flew to Ireland — the EU country which will be most affected by Britain’s decision to leave the 28-nation bloc.
Ireland’s concerns revolve mainly around the future of its lucrative exports to Britain and its border with British-ruled Northern Ireland.
Prime Minister Enda Kenny has also raised the possibility of a vote by Northern Ireland, which voted to stay in the EU, to unite with Ireland.
Worried about growing euroscepticism at home, France has urged Britain not to draw out its negotiations to leave the European Union although it accepts that formal talks may not begin for several months.
“The pressure is on Britain. It has put itself in this situation,” a French diplomatic source said.
The diplomat said Britain could not get a custom-made agreement on its future relations with the EU.
“That is not possible. It has to choose between existing options.”
Hollande has a presidential election looming next year and faces the far-right National Front, which wants France to leave the EU too.
Britain yesterday took the first step towards Brexit by announcing it was relinquishing its six-month EU presidency which had been due to start in July 2017 and will be taken up by Estonia instead.
But during her visit to Berlin, May said she would not initiate the formal procedure for Brexit “before the end of this year” at the earliest.
Merkel, who is expected to play a pivotal role in the Brexit talks along with France, said it was in the interests of all that Britain had a “well-defined position” before beginning the negotiations.
“No one wants things to be up in the air – neither Britain nor the member states of the EU,” Merkel said.
Britain’s EU referendum on June 23 triggered turmoil in Britain’s two main political parties and sent shockwaves through the global economy.
The key sticking points in the Brexit negotiations are likely to be the freedom of EU citizens to live and work throughout the bloc and Britain’s access to the EU’s single market.
EU immigration was an emotive issue in the referendum.
Brexit campaigners argued that the hundreds of thousands of EU immigrants arriving in Britain every year have been pushing down wages for low-paid Britons and overburdened public services.