Theresa May warns Britain will not be rushed on Brexit

PM and Angela Merkel underline mutual interest in maintaining strong political ties

German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister Theresa May at their first formal meeting in Berlin. Amid the smiles, it was the first frisson of tension. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister Theresa May at their first formal meeting in Berlin. Amid the smiles, it was the first frisson of tension. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

 

British prime minister Theresa May has warned her government will not be rushed into applying to leave the EU because London – and other European capitals – need time to prepare for Britain’s “sensible and orderly” departure.

On her first foreign visit since taking office last week, May looked every inch the prime minister in Berlin, welcomed with military honours by chancellor Angela Merkel under a drooping union jack.

At their first meeting, Europe’s two most powerful women underlined their mutual interest in maintaining friendly strong political and trade ties. It was a valiant effort to paper over the month-old Brexit cracks, but it didn’t take long before they ran out of paper.

Asked about her first impression of the German leader, May said it was “very important that we have two women here . . . who get on with the job and who both want to deliver the best possible results for the people of UK and Germany”.

But an amused Merkel brushed aside the chance to say something uplifting about women in power. Instead she pointed out the Brexit elephant in the room.

Not negotiations

“We will of course need to get an idea of what ideas Britain has regarding withdrawal,” said Merkel, with a note of warning: “We don’t want an impasse, the British people don’t want it but the EU doesn’t want it either.”

Berlin and other EU capitals insist London must file a formal application to extricate itself from the bloc before they can talk about a future relationship. But May insisted she wouldn’t be rushed into doing so until Britain – and everyone else in Europe – has done their homework.

“This will take time and will require serious and detailed work,” she said, adding that Britain’s formal application would not come before the end of the year. “I’m aware that won’t please everyone but it is important to provide clarity on that now.”

Amid the smiles, it was the first frisson of tension. Another came when a German journalist asked May what she was thinking when she appointed Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson as her foreign secretary.

Avoiding Johnson’s blonde ambition, May insisted her cabinet would work together to build good relations abroad.

Spotting an opening, Merkel said she was sure Johnson would work closely with the 27 EU foreign ministers on pressing challenges of the day, from security to migration issues.

On the latter, May repeated that she viewed the Brexit vote as a vote in favour of controlled, vastly reduced inward migration to Britain from the EU. Upcoming talks, she said, would be about striking the best balance between migration and trade.

Dr Merkel declined to comment directly on the dilemma of balancing Britain’s hope to access the EU’s single market without accepting the flip side: free movement of EU goods, services and people.

True to her refusal to enter negotiations, the German leader stuck to her tone of conciliatory impatience, calling for a deal with Britain that “created respect, built on the principle of friendship” – but one that hinged on Britain offering a “certain timeline” over its exit.

May can expect today an even firmer push for a Brexit timetable  when she meets French president François Hollande today in Paris, determined that Britain is made an example of over its departure.

But German president Joachim Gauck urged EU leaders not to adopt an “aggrieved posture” that would make Britain “feel the consequences of their decision in . . . a particularly hard way”.

Clever tactics

“Negotiating with Great Britain is always an exhausting experience but interesting and tactically clever,” said Merkel drily.

Looking ahead to Britain’s EU departure, she added: “We are going to try and compete in terms of diplomatic tactics to retain a level playing field.”

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