VALLETTA, Malta (AP) — The leader of the European Union's smallest nation warned Britain on Wednesday that it can only lose by leaving the EU and that no member state is likely to break ranks and negotiate with London until it has departed.
"We want a fair deal for the UK, but that fair deal needs to be inferior to membership," Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told reporters as his country assumed the EU's rotating presidency in the first half of a year likely to prove rocky for Europe.
Britain is set to become the first member country ever to leave the EU, probably in 2019, and Prime Minister Theresa May has said she would officially trigger two years of exit talks by the end of March.
As the British economy shudders and the pound fluctuates, London also is seeking to launch bilateral talks with each of its 27 European partners. So far, they are holding out, determined to protect their interests and the EU's future.
"There will be a united front from the European side on dealing with this resolutely and in a fair manner," said Muscat, whose Mediterranean island state has close historic and cultural links with Britain. "I have rarely been at a discussion of any other subject where the 27 member states have basically the same position."
Tiny Malta faces a challenging six months at the EU's helm. Elections are due in heavyweight members France and Germany, and citizens have become increasingly critical of a unified Europe due to the bloc's failure to manage the refugee crisis and to keep citizens safe from extremist attacks.
The problems have fueled support for far-right, anti-immigrant parties, particularly in France and the Netherlands, where parliamentary elections will be held this year. The far-right could also enter the German Parliament for the first time since World War II.
"We are facing a perfect storm," Malta's Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech said.
"The next 12 months are a defining moment for Europe," Grech warned, saying that nations have been too slow to act on their promises. "Citizens believe that national solutions are more effective than European solutions."
Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.