Hollande presses May to bring forward Brexit talks

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at 2016.10.20
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Hollande presses May to bring forward Brexit talks

François Hollande is pressing Theresa May to hasten Britain’s EU exit notification, warning that otherwise France’s presidential elections could waste several months of valuable time in the Brexit negotiations.

When the UK prime minister informed Mr Hollande that she would trigger formal Article 50 divorce talks by the end of March, less than a month before the first round of voting, the French president quipped: “In March, I may be a little busy.” He is eyeing a re-election bid in spite of rock-bottom poll ratings.

Mrs May attends her first summit of EU leaders on Thursday, where over dinner she will state her hope that Brexit will be “a smooth, constructive, orderly process minimising uncertainty”, according to a Downing Street official. While making clear that there is “no turning back” on the referendum result, she will seek to reassure other leaders that Britain will not seek to undermine the remaining members of the EU.

Although some may be unable to resist the temptation, EU leaders have been strongly advised by Donald Tusk, European Council president, to avoid responding to Mrs May’s “information point” on Brexit, which will most likely start over coffee or dessert.

Mr Hollande is expected to reiterate — at least on the sidelines — his concern that a March notification will leave a narrow window to set Brexit talks in motion before the elections bring France to a standstill.

Given its own worries over the uncertainty set off by Brexit, Berlin has also made clear it would welcome “an early start to negotiations.” “Mrs May has set an end point [for when she might activate Article 50] but she has made clear that it could be sooner,” a German official said on Wednesday.

Once in receipt of Mrs May’s notification letter, the EU-27 will convene to agree guidelines for Brexit negotiations — a process that might take weeks or even months, according to EU diplomats. Several more weeks are likely to be needed to draw up and agree a negotiating mandate for the European Commission.

By then, France’s presidential campaign will be in full swing ahead of the first round on 23 April. That may constrain Mr Hollande from making substantive decisions at an EU level — preventing the bloc from moving forward. Legislative elections in June would be likely to delay the process until the summer, French aides say.

At that point Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who is facing federal general elections in September, may find herself in a similar situation as her French counterpart.

“We are telling our British friends, be careful because at some point we will have to hold our pens,” a French diplomat said.

A notification in February would be “ideal” because it would allow Michel Barnier, the commission’s chief negotiator, to kick-start and lead the technical negotiation during the elections, the diplomat said.

Britain is looking for assurances about the divorce process — and guidance on the likely reaction to its demands — before making its notification. Mrs May’s envoys have asked the EU to start informal working groups on Brexit issues but the overtures have to date been rejected.

We are telling our British friends, be careful because at some point we will have to hold our pens

Since the UK voted to leave the EU, Mr Hollande has repeatedly called for Britain to heed the message of the Brexit referendum and send its exit notification “as soon as possible”.

Paris’s eagerness to take a hard line towards the UK in the negotiations over its future status with the EU is partly motivated by domestic politics. The far-right, anti-EU National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is expected to qualify for the run off in France’s presidential vote, is a particular focus. But Mr Hollande, a staunch Europhile, is also convinced that the bloc would collapse if the UK strikes a better deal once out of the union.

“There must be a threat, there must be a risk, there must be a price,” Mr Hollande said this month at the 20th anniversary of Notre Europe, the pro-EU think-tank founded by Jacques Delors, the former EU commission chief.

Additional reporting by Stefan Wagstyl in Berlin and Henry Mance in London

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Published at Thu, 20 Oct 2016 04:00:39 +0000

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