Hollande urges Brexit talks 'as soon as possible'

Dublin (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande on Thursday urged Britain to begin talks to leave the EU "as soon as possible" and ruled out granting access to the single market without allowing EU workers into Britain.

"The sooner these negotiations begin the better, and the shorter they are the better," Hollande said during a visit to Dublin, hours before he was due to meet British Prime Minister Theresa May in Paris.

"Things should not drag on," Hollande said, warning that a delay would cause "damaging uncertainty" and calling for talks to start "as soon as possible".

He said he expected May to give her "reasons" on why she planned to delay until next year invoking Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty -- the formal procedure for withdrawal from the European Union.

Britain's vote to leave the European Union in a referendum last month sent shockwaves through the global economy and sparked political turmoil at home.

European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi struck a reassuring tone, however, in remarks following the ECB's regular policy-setting meeting.

"After the UK referendum, euro area financial markets have weathered the spike in uncertainty and volatility with encouraging resilience," Draghi said.

Hollande's tough talk contrasted sharply with a more accommodating stance by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

During a visit by May to Berlin on Wednesday, Merkel said she accepted that Britain needed time to prepare for the negotiations.

Speaking on her first foreign trip since taking office in the wake of Britain's seismic June referendum, May told Merkel that her government would not ask to leave the EU before the end of 2016 in order to plan a "sensible and orderly departure".

Merkel, who is expected to play a pivotal role in the Brexit talks along with France, said it was in the interests of all that Britain had a "well-defined position" before the talks began.

Faced with growing euroscepticism at home, Hollande has taken a harder line since Britain's seismic June 23 vote to leave the EU.

He has a presidential election looming next year and faces a challenge from the far-right National Front, which wants France to leave the EU too.

The Brexit talks are expected to hinge on Britain's desire to restrict immigration by EU citizens but still retain vital access to the EU's single market.

Hollande appeared to rule out the possibility.

"Access to the single market cannot be guaranteed unless free movement of workers is respected," he said.

Hollande and Kenny also said in a joint statement that there should be "a balance of rights and obligations, including in respect of the four freedoms", referring to the free movement of goods, services, capital and people in the EU.

EU immigration was an emotive issue in the referendum.

Brexit campaigners argued that the hundreds of thousands of EU immigrants arriving in Britain every year have been pushing down wages for low-paid Britons and overburdened public services.

- 'Unique concerns' on Brexit -

Ireland's concerns revolve mainly around the future of its lucrative exports to Britain and its border with British-ruled Northern Ireland, which would be the EU's only land border with Britain once it has left.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny has also raised the possibility of a vote by Northern Ireland, which voted to stay in the EU, to unite with Ireland.

"Ireland and France are the UK's nearest neighbours, with significant and complex economic, human, cultural and historical links," Kenny and Hollande said in a joint statement.

"In consequence, both countries have specific and indeed unique concerns to be addressed in future negotiations," they said.

Britain on Wednesday took the first step towards Brexit by announcing it was relinquishing its six-month EU presidency which had been due to start in July 2017 and will be taken up by Estonia instead.