By Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel
BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s European Affairs Minister held out the possibility of Britain achieving “special status” in its relationship with the European Union but pressed London to get on with starting talks on leaving the bloc early next year.
British media reported at the weekend that London could delay triggering the procedure for exiting the EU until later next year. Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said on Monday she would not begin the proceedings before the end of the year.
Michael Roth, Germany’s European Affairs minister, said Britain should be ready to negotiate at the start of 2017.
“Until the end of the year should really be sufficient time to get organized and adjust to the new situation,” he told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday. “We should not let too much time go by.”
European leaders do not want Britain to hold the bloc hostage by horse trading on the terms of an EU exit before it commits to leave.
Roth, a member of the Social Democrats, junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition, said only when Britain triggers “Article 50”, which sets the clock ticking on a two-year deadline to leave the EU, could serious discussions begin.
It should be possible to complete the negotiations within two years, in time for the next elections for the European Parliament in 2019, he said.
“We can’t quibble about it. Even if we didn’t want or hope for it, Brexit won and as it won there can’t be any British members in the next European Parliament,” Roth said.
Asked whether Britain could adopt a model similar to that of Switzerland or Norway, which are not members of the EU but have close ties to it, Roth said the deal agreed with London would probably be unlike those struck with other countries.
“Given Britain’s size, significance and its long membership of the European Union, there will probably be a special status which only bears limited comparison to that of countries that have never belonged to the European Union,” he said.
“I want relations between the European Union and Britain to be as close as possible,” he said, but added: “There cannot be any cherry picking.”
Much of the negotiating on Britain’s EU exit is likely to focus on a trade-off between access to the bloc’s internal market and the free movement of people. Roth showed little sign of a readiness to compromise here.
Asked if Britain could retain the market access while putting limits on the free movement of people, he replied: “I can’t imagine that.”
“The free movement of workers is a highly prized right in the European Union and we don’t want to wobble on that.”
(Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Janet Lawrence)