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Incoming EU president Malta signals tough Brexit talks with UK

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain cannot expect a better relationship with the European Union than it currently has once it leaves the bloc, incoming EU president Malta said on Friday, signalling a tough stance in looming Brexit negotiations.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker poses with Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat ahead of a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, November 16, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty, the two-year negotiation process for leaving the 28-nation bloc, before the end of March next year.

The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta, a former British colony, takes over the EU’s rotating six-month presidency in January.

“There will not be a situation where the UK will have a better deal than it has today. It simply cannot be,” Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told BBC radio.

Asked about British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s suggestion that post-Brexit Britain could have access to the EU’s single market while restricting free movement of EU citizens, Muscat said: “There is absolutely no bluffing from the European side ...”

“No, this is really and truly our position and I don’t see it changing,” he said, ruling out any softening of the EU position in the Brexit talks.

A spokesman for May said her government was approaching the negotiations “in the spirit of goodwill” with a view to seeking the best outcome for Britain and the 27 other EU member states.

The BBC also quoted Muscat as saying the talks on the details of Britain’s new relationship with the EU could be delayed, but it did not elaborate.

Asked if the government was preparing for a delay, May’s spokesman said there had been no change in Britain’s plans.

British voters backed Brexit by 52 percent to 48 percent in a referendum on June 23.

Many of those who voted to leave the EU were swayed by concerns over large-scale immigration into Britain from other EU member states, allowed under rules on freedom of movement.

Reporting by Sarah Young and William James; Editing by Stephen Addison