Britain will need months of preparation before Brexit talks can start, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Monday (26 July), adding there would be no single market without accepting freedom of movement.
Juncker, who also confirmed Britain would lose unrestricted access to the internal European Union market if it did not accept free movement of workers, said his preference would have been for Brexit talks to start as soon as possible.
“(But) this is not the case. The British government needs several months to fine-tune its position,” Juncker told France 2 television.
New British Prime Minister Theresa May told Juncker in mid-July that Britain hoped to hold positive talks with the EU following the result of the 23 June referendum, but needed time to prepare for the negotiations.
Juncker said there was no deadline, since Article 50 of the EU treaty, which specifies the exit procedures, could only be activated by Britain.
“I would have preferred the UK presents us its letter of resignation, so to speak, as soon as possible, as I had thought that the British, especially those who wanted to leave the EU, would have prepared for this possibility,” Juncker said.
He said the EU would not grant tariff-free access to the internal market for UK goods and services if Britain did not accept free movement of workers from within the EU.
“There will be no access to the internal market for those who do not accept the rules – without exception or nuance – that make up the very nature of the internal market system,” Juncker said.
However, diplomats told the Guardian that plans to allow the United Kingdom an exemption from EU rules on freedom of movement for up to seven years while retaining access to the single market were being considered in European capitals as part of a potential deal on Brexit.
Senior British and EU sources have confirmed that despite strong initial resistance from French president François Hollande in talks with prime minister Theresa May last week, the idea of an emergency brake on the free movement of people that would go far further than the one David Cameron negotiated before the Brexit referendum is being examined.
If such an agreement were struck, and a strict time limit imposed, diplomats believe it could go a long way towards addressing concerns of the British people over immigration from EU states, while allowing the UK full trade access to the European market.
But such plan would face opposition. French President Francois Hollande has warned that Britain would lose free EU market access and that the City of London would no longer be able to act as a clearing house in euros, if the UK stopped free movement of workers from Europe.
Asked about Boris Johnson’s comparison of the EU’s aims to unify Europe to those of Adolf Hitler – made before Johnson’s appointment as foreign minister while he was campaigning for the ‘Leave’ camp – Juncker said he was looking forward to meeting him.
“He may notice then that the difference between Hitler and me is more than a matter of nuance,” Juncker said.