Germany talks tough on negotiation but special deals are a necessity
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and fellow European leaders are pressing the new British government to trigger divorce proceedings with the European Union as soon as possible. But behind the scenes, senior German officials fear a swift move by London to invoke Article 50 of the EU treaty risks creating an impossibly short window for negotiating Britain's departure.
Further complicating the task, EU leaders have rejected the possibility of any negotiations before Britain moves on Article 50, a step which would start a two-year countdown to Brexit.
Behind their stance - and complicating Ireland's position in negotiations - is a desire to send a message to Britain that it cannot hold the EU hostage by horse trading on the terms of its EU exit before it commits to leave. But six top officials in Berlin and Brussels described this position as problematic, with one dismissing it as "absurd".
"It was not wrong to send a tough message after the Brexit vote but I don't think the current stance is sustainable," said one official. "You need to start some sort of process as soon as possible, whether you call it negotiations or not." A second senior official said: "It's absurd to think that we won't negotiate on anything before Article 50 is invoked."
But today's statements by Francois Hollande may give hope that the French position is also softening.
Behind the concern of the German officials is a creeping realisation that the two-year window for negotiating a Brexit, as set out in Article 50, is far too short. An extension of the period is possible, but it would require the unanimous agreement of the remaining 27 EU member states, and is therefore seen as unlikely, or at best unsure. Berlin is also sceptical about the possibility of Britain revoking Article 50 once it has been triggered. This means that something will have to give, German officials say. They spell out two possible scenarios.
Under the first, the EU would revise its position and agree to a prolonged period of negotiations before Article 50 is invoked.
That would win both sides extra time before the clock starts ticking, but it would represent a climbdown and probably provoke outrage in some EU capitals, notably Paris.
The second option, in the event Theresa May triggers Article 50 early next year, would be for Britain to settle for a very basic framework for its future ties with the EU, based on an existing model similar to that of Switzerland.
Even then, the deadline of two years is widely viewed as a stretch.
One senior official estimated that the EU and Britain, because of the complexity of their relationship, needed at least twice that time - six years - to seal their separation, describing two years as "mission impossible".
Adding to the muddle is the heavy election calendar in Europe next year, which officials fear could lead to paralysis. Even if formal negotiations do not start for half a year or more, the official said it was important Britain and the EU converge on a "corridor of principles" for Brexit talks soon.
One of the big worries in Berlin and other capitals is that London has unrealistic expectations about what it can secure from the Brexit negotiations, particularly on the tradeoff between access to the EU's single market and respect for the bloc's core principle of free movement.
While the British team that will negotiate Brexit is viewed in Berlin as starry-eyed when it comes to expectations of concessions, it remains unclear who will take the European lead in negotiations.
Berlin is reluctant to hand over responsibility to the executive European Commission, its president, Jean-Claude Juncker out of fear he could take an overly confrontational stance.
From the outset, agreeing a common negotiating strategy between the remaining 27 EU countries is becoming a huge challenge, especially because, on the surface at least, Berlin and Paris have different views about how to treat Britain - and Ireland - during the process.