The man who won the E.U. referendum had painted a rosy picture of Britain’s future on Monday. “British people will still be able to go and work in the E.U., to live, to travel, to study, to buy homes and to settle down,” Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who headed the Leave campaign, wrote in The Telegraph newspaper.
“There will continue to be free trade and access to the single market,” he promised. “The only change – and it will not come in any great rush – is that the U.K. will extricate itself from the E.U.’s extraordinary and opaque system of legislation: the vast and growing corpus of law enacted by a European Court of Justice from which there can be no appeal.”
Keeping all the advantages of an E.U. member state and jettisoning all the disadvantages is how Mr. Johnson sees the future relationship between his country and the European Union.
Across the English Channel, on the European Continent, officials are astonished at those remarks. Access to the single market will come at a price, insisted E.U. officials in Brussels. Non-E.U. European countries such as Norway or Switzerland had to allow the free movement of labor and pay contributions to the E.U. budget, they said.
The European Union will have to wait some time to see whether Britain will agree to those terms because the country will have to quit economic bloc before the country can negotiate a new relationship with it. Any hopes for significant progress at today’s summit will likely be dashed.
Outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron, who resigned on Friday after losing his campaign to remain, will try to outline the political chaos his nation has been hurled into when he meets his E.U. counterparts for dinner. But he won’t invoke Article 50 — the formal process to leave the European Union. On Wednesday, he will be excluded from consultations among the other 27 government leaders.
Mr. Cameron vaguely signaled that the exit application may come in October, when his successor is in place, whoever that might be. The Conservative Party said on Monday that nominations for new party leader must be in by Thursday and that an election would take place by early September.
“It could well be that the application will never come,” said one high-ranking diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous. The British government evidently doesn’t want to put itself under pressure. As soon as Article 50 is invoked, the clock will start ticking; the complex divorce proceedings will have to be completed within exactly two years. “That may not be enough time,” said an official in Brussels, who also asked not to be identified.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of complex details have to be sorted out. Britain’s contribution to the E.U. budget must be wound down, E.U. institutions based in Britain must be relocated, E.U. subsidies for British farms have to be reduced step-by-step, and the status of E.U. citizens living in Britain and Britons living in the European Union must be determined.
So the Brits are playing for time and forcing the rest of Europe to sit and wait. The European Commission, which is the E.U.’s executive body, and the European Council, which groups the national heads of government, have already set up two working groups for the Brexit talks. However, officials in Brussels acknowledge that nothing can happen before Britain formally applies to leave.
The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, reacted with outrage to the British delay tactics, saying Britain’s ruling Conservatives were yet again holding the rest of Europe to ransom. Mr. Cameron should submit his exit application at today’s summit, said Mr. Schulz, who initiated a European Parliament resolution to increase the pressure on London.
And earlier on Tuesday, the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, told the European Parliament that it is not only up to the UK to decide what happens next. “We must decide what happens, not just those that wish to leave.”
But E.U. Council President Donald Tusk has sounded conciliatory, saying the Brexit vote has plunged Britain into a deep political and institutional crisis. Giving the country an ultimatum for today was “no realistic option,” said an official close to Mr. Tusk.
Arriving at the summit on Tuesday, Mr. Tusk told reporters that it is the British who have to initiate proceedings.
“This is the only legal way we have, everyone should be aware of this fact, which means that we also have to be patient if there is such a need. Europe is ready to start the divorce process even today.” Mr. Tusk added: “We have precise procedures; we have a ready work plan. But without the notification from the UK we will not start any negotiations on the divorce process or on future relations.”
The foreign ministers of the six founding members of the European Union – Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – had already piled the pressure on Britain at a meeting in Berlin on Saturday.
But at a meeting of 27 E.U. ambassadors on Sunday, the tone was already sounding very different. Some participants had called for a quick Brexit but others wanted to give the British more time, according to officials in Brussels.
“The second school of thought is gaining ground,” said one E.U. diplomat. Experts said that was a sensible stance.