The UK will not be “walking away from our European friends”, Theresa May has told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the first of many overseas trips set to be dominated by Brexit.
Mrs May landed in Berlin fresh from a cool and pithy performance in her first Prime Minister’s Questions, ridiculing Jeremy Corbyn over the rifts within the Labour Party.
In the House of Commons, the Prime Minister also insisted Scotland would leave the EU along with the rest of the UK, dismissing as “impracticable” claims from the SNP that a deal could be done with Brussels to preserve EU membership north of the Border.
Later, at a press conference in Berlin, the German Chancellor made clear that no formal negotiations with the EU could take place until the UK government activated Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which Mrs May said would not happen before the end of the year.
However, Ms Merkel did open the door to informal talks, and said the UK could negotiate its exit at the same time as the deal for its new relationship with the bloc.
Both leaders insisted the bilateral relationship between Germany and the UK would continue despite the EU referendum result. However, in a further demonstration of how Brexit now dominates foreign policy concerns, on Tuesday night Mrs May telephoned Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, to say the UK would relinquish its six-month presidency of the group scheduled for the second half of 2017.
Ms Merkel said: “It is now up to the British government to define how it wishes to see its future relationship with the EU and to then also pursue the following steps, particularly as regards the process leading up to invoking Article 50, and then will the proper negotiations start – the treaties of the EU are very clear on this.
“Today we will discuss ...what is of relevance in connection with Article 50 without engaging in any formal or informal talks.”
Ms Merkel added that Germany would “stand up for our interests just as Britain does it for its own citizens”, but it would be “in a spirit of friendship and on a basis of many shared convictions”.
The relationship appeared to get off to a workmanlike start, with the chancellor endorsing the Prime Minister’s view that they were “two women who have had a constructive discussion, and who get on with the job to deliver the best for their citizens”.
Earlier Mrs May made a handful of jokes at the expense of the divided Labour Party.
She turned a question from Mr Corbyn about employment protections on its head, suggesting the embattled leader suffered from “job insecurity”, and that MPs behind him were unhappy with their “unscrupulous boss”.
Aiming to cause maximum embarrassment for Labour, she thanked the 140 opposition MPs who broke with Mr Corbyn but backed Labour policy in voting to replace Trident nuclear weapons.
Faced with laughing Tory MPs, Mr Corbyn hit back angrily: “I know this is very funny for Conservative members but I do not suppose too many Conservative MPs have to go to a food bank to supplement their family table.”
The Prime Minister travels to Paris today for talks with the French president François Hollande.