German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and fellow European leaders may be pressing the new British government to trigger divorce proceedings with the European Union as soon as possible. But behind the scenes, diplomats think a quick exit may be too much to ask.
Senior German officials – who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue – say they fear a swift move by London to invoke Article 50 of the EU treaty risks creating an impossibly short window for negotiating Britain’s departure.
Further complicating the task, EU leaders have rejected the possibility of any negotiations before Britain moves on Article 50, a step which would start a two-year countdown to Brexit.
But six top officials in Berlin and Brussels described this position as problematic, with one dismissing it as “absurd”.
Some believe Europe’s hard line on the sequencing of Brexit talks will need to be revised, perhaps as early as October, when new British Prime Minister Theresa May is due to attend her first meeting of EU leaders in Brussels.
The comments reveal the depth of anxiety in Europe’s key capitals about how both sides in the Brexit showdown have positioned themselves in the weeks after the shock June 23 vote to leave the bloc.
“It was not wrong to send a tough message after the Brexit vote but I don’t think the current stance is sustainable,” said one official. “You need to start some sort of process as soon as possible, whether you call it negotiations or not.”
A second senior official said: “It’s absurd to think that we won’t negotiate on anything before Article 50 is invoked.”
Merkel has ruled out preliminary talks with the British government on exiting the European Union, while offering May space to decide when her government is ready to invoke the notification necessary.
Merkel, who hosted May in Berlin last week said that EU rules stipulate a country must invoke Article 50 to start the legal process of leaving the 28-nation bloc.
Hollande, who also met May last week, urged her to quickly come up with a negotiating stance for exiting, saying “the sooner, the better”.
Behind the concern of the German officials is a creeping realisation that the two-year window for negotiating a Brexit, as set out in Article 50, is far too short.
An extension of the period is possible, but it would require the unanimous agreement of the remaining 27 EU member states, and is therefore seen as unlikely, or at best uncertain.
Berlin is also sceptical about the possibility of London revoking Article 50 once it has been triggered.
This means that something will have to give, German officials say. They spell out two possible scenarios.
Under the first, the EU would revise its position and agree to a prolonged period of negotiations before the article is invoked. That would win both sides extra time before the clock starts ticking, but it would represent a climb down and probably provoke outrage in some EU capitals, notably Paris.
The second option, in the event that May triggers Article 50 early next year, would be for Britain to settle for a very basic framework for its future ties with the EU, based on an existing model similar to that of Norway or Switzerland.
Even then, the deadline of two years is widely viewed as a stretch.
A third senior official said it took the EU three years to seal its divorce from Greenland, a negotiation that was focused almost exclusively on fishing rights.
That official estimated that the EU and Britain, because of the complexity of their relationship, needed at least twice that time – six years – describing two years as “mission impossible”.
Adding to the muddle is the heavy election calendar in Europe next year, which officials fear could lead to paralysis.
Germany, France and the Netherlands are all holding elections in 2017, Spain is still struggling to form a government after two inconclusive votes, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he will resign if he loses a referendum on constitutional reform in the northern autumn.
Leaders in these countries will be focused on their campaigns. If there are changes in power, new governments will need time to settle in.
“Do you really think that Europe will be in a position to focus on Brexit talks next year if its five biggest countries are in the middle of elections or dogged by political uncertainty?” a senior Brussels-based official said.