BERLIN (AP) — Britain will not start exit talks with the European Union until "our objectives are clear" — and that won't be this year, Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday, at her first meeting with an EU leader as the U.K. begins the long, uncertain process of leaving the bloc.
May met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, on her first foreign trip as Britain's leader. At a joint news conference, the two women conveyed a desire to work together but little sense of urgency, or a concrete idea of how the complex divorce process will play out.
May said Britain won't invoke Article 50 of the EU constitution, triggering formal exit talks, this year.
"All of us will need time to prepare for these negotiations," she said.
Merkel signaled that Germany was prepared to wait.
She said "it is up to the British government to define its principles for the EU exit and also to trigger the necessary steps." She said "it's only then that negotiations for the exit can take place."
Merkel said "nobody wants a long-term stalemate," but it was reasonable to give Britain time to prepare carefully.
A week ago May replaced David Cameron, who resigned in the wake of Britain's decision to leave the 28-nation bloc.
May's office said her first foreign trip, which also includes a visit to French President Francois Hollande, will help forge "the personal relations that will pave the way for open and frank discussions in the months ahead."
May said Wednesday that while she doesn't underestimate the challenge of negotiating the British exit, she firmly believes "that being able to talk frankly and openly about the issues we face will be an important part of a successful negotiation."
The thorniest issue is likely to be the trade-off between access to Europe's single market — which the British economy relies on — and control of immigration. EU leaders are unlikely to give Britain full access to the market unless it accepts the EU principle of free movement of people among member states.
Facing her first weekly prime minister's question session in the House of Commons Wednesday, May did not answer directly when asked if Britain would be willing to leave the single market in order to guarantee migration controls.
She said the referendum result made clear that "people want control of free movement from the European Union." But, she said, "we must also negotiate the right deal and the best deal on trade in goods and services for the British people."
At her news conference with Merkel, May said Britain's goal was to retain "the closest possible economic relationship" with Germany and other EU countries.
May has also announced that Britain is relinquishing its turn at holding the EU presidency in the second half of 2017.
May's office said the prime minister spoke to European Council President Donald Tusk on Tuesday evening and told him Britain would give up the rotating six-month presidency — held by EU member states in turn — so it could prioritize exit negotiations.
After a working dinner with Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday, May will travel to Paris on Thursday to meet Hollande in Paris. As well as talking about the EU, they will discuss counterterrorism cooperation in the wake of last week's deadly truck attack in Nice.
May said before the trip that she wanted to send a message to Britain's European allies that "these relationships have been vital in the past and they will be vital in the future."
After meeting Merkel, May said they were "two women who get on with the job and want to deliver the best results" for their people.
"Exactly," added Merkel.
Jill Lawless reported from London. Associated Press writer Danica Kirka in London contributed to this story.