EU Says U.K. Needs a Government Before Brexit Talks Start

By Laurence Norman and Valentina Pop Features Dow Jones Newswires

European officials expressed concern Friday about the impact of the U.K. general election's stunning results on Brexit negotiations, but said the talks should start once a new government is in place.

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With most races decided, results on Friday morning showed that Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party will remain the largest party in Parliament but lose its outright majority.

Germany's Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth described the outcome as a "bombshell" and urged the U.K. to form a government quickly so talks on the U.K.'s exit from the European Union can proceed.

"We need a properly functioning government that can keep Britain together and most of all will conduct these very difficult negotiations with the EU in a professional manner," Mr. Roth told the German public broadcaster ZDF.

The European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has called for the talks on the U.K.'s exit from the European Union to begin June 19, and he and his team have already started issuing their negotiating positions.

In a message on Twitter Friday morning, however, Mr. Barnier acknowledged a firm date to start the talks was in Britain's hands.

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"Brexit negotiations should start when U.K. is ready; timetable and EU positions are clear. Let's put our minds together on striking a deal," he wrote.

European Union Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger, a German politician, suggested that the U.K. election results could shift the dynamics of the talks.

"Two strong partners are confident, and will come faster and better to a conclusion that both sides can accept," Mr. Oettinger, also a German politician, said on German public radio. "A weakened partner weakens the negotiations overall."

The U.K. notified its exit for the bloc in late March, triggering a two-year process to withdraw. Mr. Barnier has already warned that time is short to negotiate the terms of divorce and the future relationship between the EU and the U.K. He wants talks completed by October 2018 to ensure enough time to ratify the exit terms.

Manfred Weber, leader of the largest political group in the European Parliament, tweeted that "the clock for Brexit is ticking" and therefore it was key to form a functional government quickly.

The calling of snap elections by Mrs. May was aimed at strengthening her government's negotiating mandate in the talks and in Brussels. Many hoped it would give her team the flexibility to make the concessions needed to secure a deal.

Mrs. May pointed to the big win by French President Emmanuel Macron notched up in the second round of the French presidential elections last month and said her government needed an "equally strong mandate" to give Britain an "equally strong negotiating position."

In fact, while Britain now enters a period of postelection uncertainty, many of the U.K.'s biggest EU partners will start talks from a position of strength.

Polls say Mr. Macron is on course for a big win in this weekend's parliamentary elections. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is currently well placed for the autumn German ballot while Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is holding coalition talks after roundly defeating Geert Wilders' euroskeptic, anti-immigrant Party for Freedom in March's Dutch elections.

One major uncertainty for the EU is whether the election result could soften Britain's Brexit position. Mrs. May has set her sights on a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU but has said she would take Britain out of the EU's single market of goods and services and will exit the EU's customs unions, which would free the U.K. to sign its own trade deals.

She has also insisted the EU's courts should have little role in the U.K. after Brexit.

Britain's main opposition parties, including Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, are all calling for a softer Brexit, with some seeking to keep Britain in the single market in exchange for keeping the U.K. open to EU workers.

"Mrs. May lost her bet so is in a less simple situation," France's European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said on French radio Europe 1 Friday morning.

"It probably won't be without impact on the spirit of the negotiations, but it doesn't call into question the opening of the negotiations," Mr. Moscovici told French public radio Friday.

In theory, Britain's EU negotiating partners could put Britain's withdrawal negotiations on hold to stop the clock running down while a new government is formed and settles in. EU rules specifically allow extra time for the negotiations if agreed by all parties.

However the real space for extra negotiating time is limited, and it is unclear whether EU governments, many of whom expressed frustration over the nine-month delay before Britain triggered negotiations, would agree.

"Why should we? They sent the letter. So the clock keeps ticking," said one senior EU official on Friday.

EU officials say the longer the talks go on, the greater the pressure on Britain to make concessions to secure a deal and ensure the economy doesn't drop off a post-Brexit cliff.

In Brussels, EU officials have insisted the U.K. needs to have exited the bloc before elections for a new European Parliament in May or June 2019.

Anton Troianovski and

Andrea Thomas

in Berlin and

William Horobin

in Paris contributed to this article.

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com and Valentina Pop at valentina.pop@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 09, 2017 05:29 ET (09:29 GMT)