LONDON — Two days after Britain filed its divorce papers, the European Union made clear Friday that it will be the one to set the pace and terms of talks on the British decision to leave the bloc.
In its first official response to Britain’s letter announcing its exit, the E.U.’s draft guidelines for the coming negotiations show that it is willing to discuss a trade deal with Britain — but not until E.U. leaders feel that “sufficient progress” has been made in agreeing to the terms of separation.
British Prime Minister Theresa May — her eyes on the two-year countdown until the deadline for Britain’s ultimate exit — had called for divorce talks and negotiations on a new trade deal to proceed simultaneously.
Speaking at a Malta news conference, European Council President Donald Tusk said the Brexit process will be “difficult, complex and sometimes even confrontational,” adding, “There’s no way around it.”
He vowed that the E.U.’s 27 jilted members will stick together in driving a tough bargain with Britain — one that will not allow it to claim a better deal than what it has today.
The aim, Tusk said, will be to preserve the integrity of the union and to protect the interests of the 440 million E.U. citizens left behind when Britain departs. He stressed that the goal is not to punish Britain, but he implied that the country is sure to feel some pain.
“Brexit is already punitive enough,” he said.
Britain on Wednesday made official what its voters had decided in a referendum in June by triggering Article 50, the never-before-used mechanism for exiting the E.U.
May has said she wants a clean break with the union, one that leaves Britain outside the bloc’s single market and free to set its own rules in critical areas such as immigration. But she also has said she wants a free-trade deal with the E.U. that preserves Britain’s preferred status with its most significant economic partner.
There is little time to make that happen — trade deals can take five years or more to finalize — and May wants the talks to begin as quickly as possible.
But as its draft guidelines revealed Friday, the E.U. is claiming the prerogative to determine when the two sides can move on from talking about their split and start discussing what comes next.
Before the trade talks can get underway, the E.U. wants to resolve thorny issues around the separation, including the amount of money that Britain owes the bloc based on past commitments and the status of E.U. citizens now living in the United Kingdom.
Britain will have little choice but to follow Europe’s timeline. Article 50 was written to discourage members from bolting, and its terms are weighted heavily in favor of the countries that remain.
A Downing Street spokesman, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, said the E.U.’s stance shows that “both sides wish to approach these talks constructively.”
In his news conference, Tusk sought to defuse at least one issue that already has emerged as a possible source of contention.
May in her Wednesday letter appeared to link trade and security assistance, suggesting that without a comprehensive deal, “our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.”
But Tusk said that he knew May personally and that he refused to believe she would withhold security assistance in a bid to gain leverage in trade talks. The whole thing, he insisted, was “a misunderstanding.”
“Especially after the terrorist attack in London, it must be clear that terrorism is our common problem,” he said. “That is why I rule out this kind of interpretation and speculation that security cooperation is used as a bargaining chip.”