Germany delivers frosty warning to Britain's Johnson on Brexit

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s foreign minister told his British counterpart Boris Johnson on Friday that Europe would not give Britain an easy ride in Brexit talks, saying his priority was to keep the remaining 27 EU member states united.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier waits to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Johnson, a leading advocate of Britain leaving the European Union, struck a conciliatory note on his first visit to Berlin as foreign secretary, saying he thought Brexit could be a “win-win” for Britain and the EU.

But his host Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has been outspoken in his criticism of Johnson and other Brexit campaigners in the past, delivered a frosty warning that Britain should not delay the start of exit talks and that London would not be allowed to cherry-pick in the negotiations.

“Dear Boris, you have to understand that our priority is keeping the EU-27 together,” Steinmeier told a joint news conference.

“Our view is clear and we’ve said it before - we can’t talk about easing the conditions for access to the single market on the one hand and allowing Britain to reject those elements it sees as unattractive on the other.”

Johnson has irked the German government by dismissing as “baloney” the link between the EU’s core principle of free movement, which eurosceptics say makes it impossible to control immigration to Britain, and access to its tariff-free single market, which benefits British businesses. EU leaders have said repeatedly that Britain cannot have one without the other.

He started off the news conference in German with a twist on a famous speech by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, declaring “Ich bin nicht ein Berliner” (I am not a Berliner), but noting that his wife was born there.

He said the bilateral relationship was of “absolutely fundamental importance” and a guarantor of peace, stability and economic prosperity in Europe.

Johnson said the British government would stick with its plans to trigger divorce proceedings by the end of March despite a court ruling on Thursday that demands the government consult parliament before invoking Article 50 of the EU treaty to serve notice to its 27 partners.

“I don’t think it will interfere with the timetable for that process,” Johnson said, noting that the government planned to appeal the ruling and that there was no question of Britain changing course on Brexit.

Switching briefly into German again, he cautioned against reading too much into the “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress) of the tumultuous debate in the British parliament.

Steinmeier, who kept a straight face, made clear: “A further delay isn’t in anyone’s interests”.

Steinmeier said the two-year negotiation period set out by Article 50 might seem like a long time at first glance but was actually quite short given the complexity of the issues surrounding Britain’s future relations with the EU.

Reporting by Michelle Martin, Noah Barkin and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Trevelyan