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Theresa May ‘likely’ to launch Brexit talks in early 2017, suggests Donald Tusk

Article 50 could be triggered in January or February claims European council president at Bratislava summit, dashing remain voters hopes of a delay

The UK is expected to launch formal talks to leave the European Union in January or February next year, one of Europes top leaders said after a special summit without Britain, aimed at rallying the bloc battered by Brexit and the migration crisis.

The European council president, Donald Tusk, said British prime minister Theresa May had told him article 50 was likely to be triggered in January or February next year, dashing remain voters hopes of delaying the UKs EU exit.

The British government was also sent a stark warning not to expect any compromise on the EUs cherished principle of free movement of people, if it wants access to the single market.

Speaking of his meeting with May in London last week, Tusk said the prime minister had been open and honest about her difficulties in launching EU exit talks this year.

She declared that it was almost impossible to trigger article 50 this year but its quite likely that they will be ready, maybe in January, maybe in February, next year. He said the rest of the EU was ready to start negotiations tomorrow.

Standing at his side, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European commission, vowed there would be no compromise on free movement of workers. This is not a game, he said. It is about the rights of ordinary people, of workers in Europe, so I cant see any possibility of compromising on that very issue.

Brexit was not top of the agenda at the one-day summit in Bratislava, as European leaders concentrated on charting a way forward for a bloc that has stumbled from crisis to crisis in recent years.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said the EU was in a critical situation not only because of the Brexit referendum but also because of other difficulties that we have.

This was only the second time in 43 years EU leaders have met without the UK and the mood was solemn. At an earlier gathering the week after Brexit, EU leaders were still shellshocked, but now it has sunk in, one EU source said.

Nevertheless there was determination to show a united front for a few hours at least.

In a lunchtime cruise along the Danube on a German-registered luxury boat, steered by a German captain, EU leaders quickly agreed to reassert their earlier pledge not to negotiate with the UK until the government invokes article 50.

Earlier in the day in the gilded halls of Bratislava castle, EU leaders discussed what had gone wrong with the EU. One EU source described the discussion as polite, with no recriminations, a sharp change in tone following a ferocious war of words between Hungary and Luxembourg over asylum seekers.

But the friendly tone partly dissipated once leaders had left the castle walls.

Italys leader, Matteo Renzi, refused to appear at a press conference with his French and German counterparts, declaring that he was not satisfied with the conclusions on growth and immigration. Renzi, who faces a difficult referendum vote in October, said the EU was still far from meeting its post-Brexit challenges. On migration the usual things were said again, he said.

The same splits were on display, as Hungarys prime minister, Viktor Orbn, slammed the EUs migration policy as self-destructive and naive. Unless Germany imposed a firm ceiling on the number of immigrants it is willing to take in, a suction effect would continue to draw masses to Europe. Something must happen, he said.

The Visegrd group of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia reaffirmed their hostility to refugee quotas. In a surprise paper sent to EU leaders on the morning of the summit, the central European quartet also mounted a robust defence of free movement of labour, with implicit critique of intra-EU protectionism, following debates in France on foreign workers undercutting locals and the Brexit vote centred on immigration.

These countries will be staunch defenders of the principle of free movement of people in any talks with the UK. Brexit must avoid the risk of creating second-rate citizens in the United Kingdom, said Robert Fico, Slovakias prime minister. Brexit negotiations should not damage our interests and must show it is worth being a member of the EU, he said.

In an effort to avoid confrontation, Tusk had steered the meeting to focus on areas the 27 leaders could agree on: a mix of plans on security, counter-terrorism and moves to take more control of globalisation, against a backdrop of stubbornly-high youth unemployment in southern Europe.

Countries pledged to send border guards and more equipment to the secure the EUs external border in Bulgaria, although exact numbers have yet to be finalised. Earlier this week, Juncker called for an extra 200 border guards and 50 vehicles to be stationed at the Bulgarian frontier by next month.

On paper, leaders also promised immediate implementation of a joint declaration with Nato, after signing a cooperation pact in July aimed at overcoming decades of debate about securing Europes borders. France and Germany have swung behind plans for a common European defence headquarters and shared military hardware, and EU leaders have now promised to agree a common plan by December.

Big questions remain unresolved, kicked down the road to further summits in 2017. Tusk said the Bratislava meeting had paved the way for agreeing a range of economic and security measures in March 2017, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the European project.

But few observers expect serious changes, such as far-reaching reform of the eurozone, until French and German elections are completed later that year.

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