With Malta having the EU presidency next year, its prime minister Joseph Muscat could be at the centre of negotiations...
The EU leader preparing to chair Brexit negotiations has told Sky News that the UK is "between a rock and a hard place" and will be offered an "inferior" trade deal.
Dr Joseph Muscat, the Prime Minister of Malta, revealed that he had told British Prime Minister Theresa May:
"Most of my colleagues want a fair deal for both the UK and Europe, but it has to be a deal that is inferior to membership, so you can't have the cake and eat it.
"I don't see a situation where Britain will be better off at the end of the deal."
Dr Muscat's comments on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York are significant because Malta is the set to hold the rotating EU presidency, meaning it will chair the initial Brexit negotiations if May triggers Article 50 early next year.
He is also one of 27 EU leaders who met in Bratislava last week to plot a course for the EU without the UK.
Muscat expressed some exasperation at the lack of clarity from UK about its intent on Brexit.
A day after meeting with May, Muscat said: "One of the problems is that in order to negotiate you have to know what the other side wants … right now, we don't know what the UK side wants.
"Can you tell me if the UK government wants access to the single market? Because I don't know. What does Brexit mean at the end of the day?"
Muscat said the EU-27 will negotiate as one bloc, and outlined the likely process being prepared by the Council presidency should the UK trigger Article 50, the formal process for leaving the EU.
"Once the position of British government is determined, then the EU side will take a month, a month and a half to come together, draft the lines of engagement, draft a mandate and then the negotiations will start … there will be a unified position where the EU Council will give a mandate to the Commission to negotiate."
Some British Brexit campaigners have suggested the UK Government will be able to take advantage of splits in the EU-27.
Negotiating as a bloc of 27 means Britain would be unable to restrict migration from, say Bulgaria or Romania, without inviting the same restrictions on British citizens going to France or Spain.
Initial soundings have also been made by British negotiators about splitting exit negotiators into chapters, most notably breaking off a deal on single market trade from the discussion on migration.
Muscat warned this approach has been rebuffed already, adding:
"I don't think there is a situation where one can discuss access to the single market and freedom of movement of people separately. EU countries will resist. It's not like discussing entering the union with a number of chapters.
"It will be a more holistic approach, a number of countries will be wary - including my own - of giving the UK a deal which would undermine our own competitiveness."
Italy's Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, told Sky News he wanted to use the process to help the EU "turn a new page".
"[I am] not interested in the consequences for the UK. Brexit is Brexit, no problem for us."
One EU leader claimed to Sky News privately that "the UK has no leverage" in Brexit economic negotiations, only from its security policy in Eastern Europe.
Brexit-backing Cabinet ministers believe that the goods trade deficit run by the UK with the EU will ensure the most powerful EU nations will maintain tariff-free trade.
However, others point out that the UK is a much smaller proportion of EU trade than EU trade is for the UK.
Additional reporting by IRN