EU's Tusk Says May Expects to Start Brexit Talks by February

  • Tusk says EU ‘well prepared’ for negotiations on Brexit
  • Fico says Brexit deal must not ‘damage our interests’

European Union President Donald Tusk said he’d been told by Prime Minister Theresa May that the U.K. is likely to trigger formal Brexit talks in January or February.

Speaking at a summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, to which the U.K. was barred for the first time in four decades following the June decision to quit the EU, Tusk said May had laid out that timeframe during a recent conversation.

“Prime Minister May was very open and honest with me,” he said. “She declared that it’s 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.”

The U.K.’s pending withdrawal and the two years of talks it will entail overhung the meeting in the Slovak capital of the 27 other EU leaders as they sought to craft a vision for the future without its second-biggest economy.

In a sign of how hard the split may prove, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, said the EU should ensure it doesn’t “damage our interests” by granting too many concessions to the British.

Single Market

“The negotiations must lead to a result where it is clear that it is worth being a member of the EU,” he said. “There are more advantages than disadvantages in being a member state and we can achieve that.”

He also warned the U.K. against “cherry picking” by trying to maintain the advantages of EU membership such as access to its single market for trade and avoiding the downsides such as accepting the free movement of labor.

“You can’t just pick out the best items that suit you,” he said, adding he didn’t see “any possibility” the U.K. could find a compromise on migration controls.

‘Clear Priorities’

Other than to rule out invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty this year, May has declined to publicly say when she may kick off the two years of divorce talks. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told his Italian counterpart this week that early-2017 was a probable start date, according to an official familiar with the conversation.

The leaders meeting in Bratislava sought to use the Brexit vote as an impetus for safeguarding the EU’s future.

“We find ourselves in a decisive phase in the European Union,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “We want to ensure that this agenda is a success and not just words spoken in a room.”

French President Francois Hollande said “what we must remember from Bratislava is this: Europe can move forward, Europe must move forward, as soon as it has clear priorities.”

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