Tick-tock: EU says time pressing hard to start Brexit talks

By RAF CASERT Markets Associated Press

Frustrated by a year of British foot-dragging and faced by more uncertainty in the aftermath of the country's general election, the European Union on Friday had a clear proposal of when to start the Brexit negotiations: How about tomorrow morning?

Continue Reading Below

"Half past nine," suggested EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

That doesn't look likely.

It long seemed like Britain could not get out of the European Union fast enough. Now that it has decided to jump ship, it seems it can't get its act together to actually leave.

Prime Minister Theresa May decided to hold a snap election to boost her majority and strengthen her hand in EU divorce talks. The opposite happened as she lost her majority and undermined her own authority as prime minister.

Now with the anniversary of Britain's landmark June 23 Brexit vote looming and still no serious negotiations underway, many EU nations and top officials have had enough.

Continue Reading Below

May Friday insisted that she would stick to the Brexit timetable. But she was forced into an alliance with a small party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, just to stay in power.

"This government will guide the country through the crucial Brexit talks ... and deliver on the will of the British people by taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union," she said.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's top Brexit official, is eager to get talks started.

"I hope the U.K. will soon have a stable government to start negotiations," he told The Associated Press. "It is not only about the U.K., but also about the future of Europe."

The Czech prime minister said Friday that Britain should not be granted any extension on the two-year deadline for the Brexit talks. Bohuslav Sobotka said that too much time had already been wasted.

"I don't think we should talk about some prolongation of the deadline," he said in Prague. "We should clearly come to terms with the British to start as quickly as possible."

In the wake of last year's Brexit referendum, called and lost by Prime Minister David Cameron, Britain's Conservative party took a long time to reorganize itself before it finally triggered the Brexit negotiations on March 29.

Then in April, Cameron's successor, May, called an early election that again stalled talks with Brussels. To make matters worse, she saw her majority evaporate.

"I thought surrealism was a Belgian invention," quipped Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister.

The talks were set to officially begin on June 19. Now, all remains unclear.

The decision of Britain to leave was a shocking and cathartic moment in the 60-year history of the bloc, whose member states want to keep Britain as a close partner once it is out. That is why the EU wants the talks to go smoothly.

Within the two years of talks, Britain wants to not only agree on the terms of its exit but also negotiate a new relationship on things like trade and security. The risk of having no deal worries some in Britain, particularly businesses.

"Our shared responsibility and urgent task now is to conduct the negotiations on the U.K.'s withdrawal from the European Union in the best possible spirit, securing the least disruptive outcome," EU Council President Donald Tusk wrote in a congratulatory message to May.

Tusk said the March 2019 deadline "leaves us with no time to lose. I am fully committed to maintaining regular and close contact at our level to facilitate the work of our negotiators."

EU budget Commissioner Guenther Oettinger stressed that the official deadline of March 2019 is a bit of a stretch in itself.

To keep within the timeframe, the EU nations "need a draft agreement before end of October next year," to have enough time to push it through their own decision-making process. "So we have 15, or 16 more months. So our expectation and hope is that there is a new government in London as soon as possible."