LONDON • Prime Minister Theresa May has not ruled out allowing the free movement of people between Britain and the European Union during "an implementation phase" after Britain leaves the bloc, the BBC reported yesterday.
Mrs May, who triggered the formal divorce procedure with the EU last week, said she expects some kind of implementation phase or transitional agreement, after two years of talks with the bloc.
She has offered few details on how an implementation phase would operate, but if Britain wants to keep the status quo before finalising a deal, it will have to accept the EU's rules - the so-called four freedoms allowing the free movement of people, capital, goods and services.
Asked whether her government would rule out the free movement of people in any transitional period after the terms of Britain's departure from the EU were agreed, Mrs May declined to do so, the BBC said.
"Once we've agreed what the new relationship will be for the future, it will be necessary for there to be a period of time when businesses and governments are adjusting systems and so forth," Mrs May told reporters on a visit to Saudi Arabia.
Concern over immigration from the EU was a major reason behind Britain's vote to leave and Mrs May said she will respect those fears by not seeking membership of Europe's single market, which would mean allowing freedom of movement of people.
She said that Britain would have "control of our borders and control of our immigration", the BBC reported.
Citing the same conversation with reporters, the Financial Times said Mrs May had suggested that Britain would not be able to complete a new trade deal with the EU until after Brexit happens in 2019, saying that there was a "legal situation in terms of how the EU can conduct trade negotiations".
However, Mrs May said by the time Britain leaves the EU, "it's right that everybody should know what the future arrangements, the future relationship, that future partnership between us and the EU will be".
Meanwhile, in Strasbourg, France, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Britain must stop pressing for immediate parallel talks with the EU on a post-Brexit free-trade deal, and first agree on withdrawal terms.
He said Mrs May's letter a week ago to trigger the two-year exit process was clearly a call for two parallel negotiations: one on how Britain quits the bloc and another on its future trade relationship with the EU.
"This is a very risky approach," he said in a speech to the European Parliament. "To succeed, we need to devote the first phase of negotiations exclusively to reaching an agreement on the principles of the exit."
Those must include providing legal certainty for people and businesses affected by Britain's departure in March 2019, he said. There must also be a border arrangement that assures the fragile peace in Northern Ireland is not upset.
Mrs May has warned that Britain would rather that talks collapsed, leaving the country to exit the EU in 2019 without special agreements, than accept a bad deal.
Several members criticised comments by British politicians in recent days about Gibraltar.
European Council President Donald Tusk has said Spain should have a say in any future EU-British relationship that affected Gibraltar.
A former leader of Mrs May's party responded that Britain would be ready for war over Gibraltar as it was over the Falkland Islands in 1982.