The French president, François Hollande, has stepped up the pressure on the UK over its timetable to leave the EU, insisting that Brexit cannot be cancelled or delayed, and that Britain will have to live with the consequences.
His hardline comments came after a meeting with David Cameron in northern France at the Battle of the Somme centenary commemorations. “The decision has been taken; it cannot be delayed and it cannot be cancelled. Now [the British] have to face the consequences,” Hollande told reporters.
“Being in the European Union has advantages,” added the president, alluding to voters who opted to leave but have since expressed regrets. “And that’s … what the British are starting to understand. Those who were tempted by the Brexit are starting to think it over.”
Hollande said a speedy Brexit “would avert all the uncertainties and instability, especially in the economic and financial domains. The faster it goes, the better it will be for them”.
His timetable is in stark contrast to both Michael Gove and Theresa May, the leading candidates to replace Cameron as Conservative party leader and prime minister, who have said they would not trigger the article 50 process until the end of the year.
But it was echoed in Bratislava by Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European commission, which wants the process to be triggered as soon as a new Conservative leader is elected in September but cannot force the UK to do so.
“There will be no negotiations whatsoever before notification and we are inviting the British authorities to make their intentions clear,” he said. “We do not have time to lose; we cannot add uncertainty to uncertainty.”
Juncker reiterated that Britain would have to accept freedom of movement if it wanted to stay in the single market. “I can’t give in on that point,” he said.
However the question may be slightly more fluid than officially presented, with two Scandinavian countries said to be unhappy that the Brexit reforms Cameron negotiated earlier this year are now off the table.
Jean-Claude Juncker in Bratislava: ‘There will be no negotiations whatsoever before notification.’
One EU source said: “Some movement by some member states on the question of freedom of movement is possible at some point down the line. But is unlikely in the next two years.”
There is a suspicion that Hollande, trailing in the polls and facing both French Socialist party primary elections this year as well as national elections next year, wants to take the toughest line possible with the British for domestic political purposes. There is a also a growing hope in France that Paris, if it makes the right pitch, might be able to grab financial services business from London.
Article 50, the part of the Lisbon treaty that sets out the process for leaving the EU, states that a government planning to leave the EU shall notify the EU in line with its national constitutional procedures.
European lawyers, in evidence to the Lords select committees, said it would be possible for the UK to revoke a notification to withdraw. It also stressed that it was legally the preserve of the nation planning to quit the EU to trigger the departure process.
There are differing legal views on whether a prime minister is required to consult parliament before triggering article 50, or whether instead it is a matter of the royal prerogative.
Hollande’s remarks came after the EU trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, said there was no prospect of starting talks on a new trade arrangement with the UK until the UK had actually left the bloc. She said there were two separate legal processes, but the UK had hoped it would be able to construct the talks on a new trade arrangement simultaneously with the talks on disengagement from the EU.
Malmström’s message is being reinforced at all levels within the European commission. But greater room for manoeuvre may appear should a new prime minister come forward with a clear plan and timetable, delivered in an amicable tone – not least because they would be under pressure to make concessions in return.
“The attitude is that everyone needs to take a step back, and a deep breath,” an EU source said. “There’s no point in people getting too excited before a new prime minister is in place.”
If backed by other EU figures, Hollande’s warnings could mean that, the moment the UK triggered article 50, there would be no chance for the UK to reconsider Brexit either though a vote in parliament or a second referendum.
The Liberal Democrats have already said they back a second referendum when the terms of the Brexit talks are complete, but the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said the UK would have to exit the result of last week’s referendum and negotiate a new model arrangement that retained UK access to the EU single market.
Juncker again said the UK could not have an exit deal in which it retained everything it wants – access to the single market – and nothing it dislikes such as free movement of workers