EU Says It's Ready to Act on Brexit Letter Within 48 Hours

  • Theresa May can expect rapid response when she triggers exit
  • ‘We’re fully prepared,’ Angela Merkel says at Brussels summit

U.K.'s May Hears Hard Truths as EU Preps for Brexit

European Union leaders said the bloc is ready for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger Brexit at any time and will respond within two days to the British government’s letter giving formal notice of the divorce.

“We are well prepared for the whole procedure and I have no doubt we’ll be ready in 48 hours,” EU President Donald Tusk told a news conference after a summit meeting in Brussels Friday. “All of us, member states and the European Council as a political body, we trust our chief negotiators.”

May is waiting for the two chambers of the U.K. Parliament to agree on the wording of a draft law authorizing her to invoke Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, the formal trigger for two years of negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal terms. Her spokesman, James Slack, told reporters in London Friday she’s still on track to give notice by the end of March.

The remaining 27 EU states will hold a special summit on April 6 if the letter arrives in Brussels next week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Brussels. Otherwise, the summit will be held later in the month or early May.

No Surprises

Leaders will be asked to agree unanimously on the guidelines for the negotiation. That would allow the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to add more detail to the mandate before negotiations between the U.K. and the EU can formally get under way.

“We won’t be surprised by the letter on any given day,” Merkel said. “We’re fully prepared and will wait with interest.”

To read about Theresa May’s next steps before Brexit, click here.

May’s letter is expected to set out the broad outlines of how she envisages the U.K.’s exit, including the rights of EU citizens in the U.K. and potential future contributions to the EU budget, as well as the two sides’ future relationship.

Whether those two aspects can be negotiated at the same time will be one of the first elements the parties must agree on. Most of the EU wants withdrawal terms to be settled first before moving onto the future trade arrangement while the U.K. is pushing for talks to happen in parallel.

Difficult Talks

Other leaders used Friday’s gathering to expand on the process and underscore their determination to keep a united front when the haggling begins.

“It won’t be an easy negotiation,” Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni told reporters at the conclusion of the summit. “We will be called to a meeting that could be in early April or early May, depending on the timing of Article 50, to decide guidelines for the negotiation process.”

He confirmed that Italy’s position is to keep the negotiation on the withdrawal terms separate from the trade negotiation.

That brings Italy into line with Germany, according to a document containing talking points distributed to German government officials by the Foreign Ministry and obtained by Bloomberg.

“First of all, elements of the process of British EU membership and exit will have to be settled,” the document said. “Only then will it be possible to negotiate all the political, legal and economic questions regarding the future relationship.”

The summit also gave the EU the opportunity to reflect upon how the bloc might evolve once the U.K. has departed. Leaders -- excluding May -- will meet in the Italian capital on March 25 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which founded the bloc, and discuss ideas for the future.

For European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, that could even be a future with the U.K. as a member again.

“I don’t like Brexit,” he told reporters at the summit’s end. “I would like to be in the same boat as the British. The day will come when the British re-enter the boat. I hope.”

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