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Angela Merkel warns UK against Brexit ‘illusions’

The German Chancellor stressed that a “third country” – as the UK would be after Brexit – could not enjoy the same rights as a member of the EU.

Angela Merkel has claimed the UK has “illusions” about the realities of Brexit and insisted talks on the UK’s divorce bill from the European Union must be dealt with before negotiations on any trade deal can begin.

The German chancellor’s stance puts her on a collision course with the UK, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson insisted Britain will not pay a Brexit divorce bill before “substantive” negotiations with the EU start.

Mrs Merkel’s insistence that the terms of exit – including the issue of the bill which could run to £50 billion – are dealt with first comes ahead of a crunch meeting of EU leaders on Saturday to discuss their approach to the Brexit negotiations.

Speaking in the Bundestag, Mrs Merkel was cheered as she struck a firm tone about Germany’s approach.

Mrs Merkel stressed that a “third country” – as the UK would be after Brexit – could not enjoy the same rights as a member of the EU. She said she had the “feeling that some in Great Britain still have illusions” about Brexit and “that is a waste of time”.

Highlighting the importance of settling the Brexit bill first, she said: “Without progress on the many open questions of the exit, including the financial questions, it makes no sense to have parallel negotiations over the future relationship.”

Prime Minister Theresa May wants the talks to take place at the same time in an effort to get the best possible deal on trade.

Mr Johnson was not clear whether he opposed agreeing a divorce settlement or paying it before trade negotiations, but struck a defiant tone, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If you’re saying that they want the money before they get any substantive talks then that is obviously not going to happen.”

Mrs Merkel said: “We will of course do everything to minimise possible negative effects of Brexit for our citizens. In return we are of course prepared to make British citizens in Germany and other EU states a fair offer.”

But Mr Johnson told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “We made an offer by the way before Christmas that we would do a deal in advance of the negotiations, that was turned down you may recall by Germany, we’re left in a position where we have to do a reciprocal deal, and we’re fine with that. What we want to see is the rights on both sides protected.”

Responding to Mrs Merkel’s comments, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We are approaching this in a constructive spirit and with enormous goodwill.”

Asked whether Mrs May agreed with Mr Johnson that the UK should not pay any divorce bill until trade talks are under way, the PM’s spokesman said: “The Prime Minister set out the Government’s position in the Article 50 letter. The Article 50 letter was clear on that.”

Meanwhile, Brussels’ chief official Jean-Claude Juncker said it is “not realistic” to think an agreement can be concluded within the tight Brexit timetable.

Mrs May hosted European Commission president Mr Juncker and Brussels’ chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier for talks at Number 10 on Wednesday night.

European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said they discussed the need for a “swift” resolution to the terms of the divorce agreement before talks can begin on the future.

He told reporters in Brussels: “Preparatory work is progressing in a satisfactory manner and once agreement is reached on the terms of the withdrawal we can start debating the future relationship between the EU and the UK. The president thinks that it is not realistic at this stage that an agreement on the future relationship can be concluded before September/October 2018.”

Although Brexit will not be final until March 2019, the process of ratifying any deal means it needs to have been concluded by autumn 2018.

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