EU rules out informal Brexit talks before article 50 is invoked

Even before Theresa May named start date, UK sought talks ahead of official negotiations

The European Commission has warned Britain there will be no informal negotiations before the UK triggers formal exit proceedings.

British prime minister Theresa May said on Sunday she would invoke article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty before the end of next March, beginning the withdrawal negotiations.

Speaking in Brussels, a commission spokesman ruled out informal discussions with Britain before article 50 is invoked. “We’ll work constructively on the basis of a notification and, until this letter of notification arrives, there will be no negotiations,” he said.

Even before last Sunday’s speech by Ms May, British officials had been pushing for informal talks with the main EU institutions before the official exit negotiations begin, amid fears the two-year timeframe laid out in the EU treaties may not be sufficient to secure a satisfactory agreement for Britain.

Ms May said it was important for the UK and Europe to carry out “preparatory work” to ensure smoother negotiations. But EU officials have continued to rebuff overtures from Westminster.

‘Weaken British hand’

European Council president Donald Tusk welcomed “clarity” from Ms May on the start of


talks but said the EU would “engage to safeguard its interests” once article 50 is triggered.

Charles Grant of the Centre of European Reform noted the article 50 procedure was designed “to put the country leaving the EU at a disadvantage”.

“The two years prescribed by article 50 will weaken the British hand,” he said, adding it was unlikely the 27 remaining member states would agree to extend the two-year period, requiring unanimous agreement from all member states.

All three institutions of the EU have been assembling negotiating teams.

Chief negotiator

While Mr Tusk and his team will lead the political discussions on Brexit, including co-ordinating the 27 EU leaders, the European Commission will drive much of the technical and legal negotiations.

Former EU commissioner Michel Barnier, appointed as the commission’s chief negotiator in July, took up his position last weekend and plans to visit national capitals soon.

The European Parliament’s chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, welcomed Ms May’s announcement at the Conservative Party conference about article 50 being triggered, adding that it was “essential for the EU that Brexit is completed ahead of European elections in 2019”.

In a sign of the tough stance likely to be adopted by the parliament, Manfred Weber, head of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) in the parliament, said on Monday that the four fundamental freedoms of the EU’s single market were “non-negotiable.”

The European parliament must sign off any final deal between Britain and the EU as well as any future free-trade agreement negotiated between the two.

Ms May will meet fellow EU leaders at a scheduled summit on October 20th and 21st in Brussels.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent