European Union leaders fear Prime Minister Theresa May’s shock loss of her parliamentary majority raises the risk of failure in Brexit negotiations due to start this month that will usher Britain out of the EU in March 2019.
There was concern that a weak minority administration and a possible leadership challenge to May after her electoral gamble backfired might mean further delay to the start of talks scheduled for June 19. But the prime minister said her new government would now prepare for discussions in 10 days time.
However, Guenther Oettinger, the German member of the EU executive, was among those warning that a weak British leader may be a problem once talks start. “We need a government that can act,” he told German radio. “With a weak negotiating partner, there’s a danger the negotiations will turn out badly.”
When UK is ready
Oettinger’s boss, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, said his Brexit negotiating team under Michel Barnier was ready: “The clock is ticking,” Juncker said.
Barnier sounded conciliatory: “Brexit negotiations should start when UK is ready,” he tweeted. “Timetable and EU positions are clear. Let’s put our minds together on striking a deal.”
Donald Tusk, the former Polish premier who will oversee the process as chair of EU national leaders’ summits, also stressed there was “no time to lose” and a need for London and Brussels to cooperate to minimise disruption for people, businesses and governments across Europe when Britain walks out in 22 months.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe was quick to scotch a suggestion Britain might do a U-turn and ask to stay in the bloc – something that would need EU agreement – and a Commission spokesman resisted a barrage of questions at a press briefing on whether the Union might agree to extend the two-year deadline.