Serious negotiations on the UK's exit from the European Union cannot begin until the end of next year, a former senior EU official has warned.
Herman Van Rompuy, the former president of the European Council, said talks on the "hardcore" issues would have to wait until after elections in France and Germany. "Before the German elections and before there is a new German government, no serious negotiations will take place," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
"You can always start with more technical matters, but the hardcore (issues) - the difficult topics - will be tackled after the constitution of the new German government. That will be in October to November."
Mr van Rompuy added that while there was no desire to "punish" Britain for voting to leave, the UK had "not many friends" among the other member states and that the negotiations would be difficult.
He also warned that maintaining free movement of labour would be a red line if the UK wanted to remain part of the single market. "Any negotiation will be a difficult negotiation," Mr Van Rompuy explained.
"Of course, we want an agreement that represents some sort of mutual benefit.
"There are huge economic interests, but there are also red lines. It is very well known that freedom of movement is one of those red lines.
"It is very difficult for the European Union to do something else vis a vis Britain compared to what we agreed upon with Norway and Switzerland."