Prime Minister Theresa May’s team is still leaning toward the first part of 2017 as the best moment to trigger the start of formal talks over the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union, according to two British officials.
While reports in the U.K. media recently suggested May could wait until the end of 2017 before opening two years of negotiations, she is sympathetic to the case for acting by April at the latest as Germany and France prepare for elections and pro-Brexit campaigners at home warn against delay, said the officials, who asked not to be named discussing private conversations.
A March summit of European leaders could provide the right setting for invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which lays out how a country quits the EU, one of the officials said.
May has held off starting the clock on Britain’s exit from the EU to allow her government time to form a team and to prepare positions for what are likely to be marathon negotiations. That’s led her to rule out any move before the end of this year.
The Sunday Times reported on Aug. 14 that May might not even invoke Article 50 until the end of next year because the new departments she has set up to handle the transition won’t be up and running as soon as once hoped. The chief Brexit negotiator, David Davis, and Trade Secretary Liam Fox are still in the process of hiring staff, while Fox and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have already squabbled over the roles their departments will play.
After some initially urged the U.K. to leave as quickly as possible following the June referendum, European leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel have since accepted that Britain will need time to decide how it wants to work with the EU in future.
Their patience is likely to have limits. Merkel and French President Francois Hollande both face elections next year and are unlikely to want an extended period of uncertainty threatening their economies as they campaign for votes.
The first round of France’s presidential ballot is in April, and Germany will probably hold a parliamentary election in September. May would prefer to start formal exit talks before those votes add further uncertainty to the political outlook, the officials said.
Merkel, Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi are scheduled to hold talks on Europe’s future in Italy on Monday.
A German official, who asked not to be identified discussing government deliberations, this week expressed frustration with a lack of signals from London over what it wants.
“We’re seeing a great deal of uncertainty right now,” German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth said in a separate interview this week. “There’s a fundamental understanding in the EU that the British government needs to reach clarity first. But things shouldn’t be put on the back burner, either.”
Waiting to begin talks would also risk fanning suspicion among the U.K.’s pro-Brexit camp that May won’t deliver on her pledge to carry through the referendum result. Conservative lawmaker John Redwood and Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, have already warned her against procrastination.
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