UK Prime Minister Theresa May was told by French President Francois Hollande to prepare for tough negotiations even as she tried to reassure EU leaders over Brexit while attending her first European Union summit since Britain’s vote to leave the bloc.
May was allotted a short time slot at the end of dinner on Thursday to lay out her plans for taking Britain out of the EU after more than four decades as a member at a gathering in Brussels where EU leaders had robust debates on Russia, migration and trade issues.
Even while May and her ministers have sent conflicting signals about what kind of relationship they envision once the divorce talks end, she has said she will formally notify the EU of Britain’s plan to leave by the end of March.
May was leaning towards a so-called “hard Brexit” in which Britain would place limits on immigration and lose access to Europe’s lucrative single market as suggested by some based on her speech at a conference of her Conservative Party in early October.
“This is my first European Council and I’m here with a very clear message. The UK is leaving the EU but we will continue to play a full role until we leave and we’ll be a strong and dependable partner after we have left,” May said at the start of the summit.
“The negotiations will be hard”, Hollande warned May despite the conciliatory tone. The two sides faced a “difficult path”, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel even as she welcomes May’s message that Britain would try to avoid causing damage to the EU in the looming talks.
May’s suggestion that preparatory talks take place before she invokes Article 50 of the EU treaty, starting the two-year countdown to Brexit was also rejected by European leaders from across the bloc who also made clear that they would not bow to May’s suggestion.
“There will be no negotiations before Article 50 is triggered by the UK. However, the basic principles, namely the single market and the indivisibility of the four freedoms, will remain our firm stance,” said European Council President Donald Tusk.
“The message that no negotiation (will take place) pre-notification has been pretty loud and clear,” an aide to May said.
Governments on the continent have warned that Britain would stand to lose its access to the single market it if places limits on the free movement people, one of the EU’s core principles.
If May insists on curbing migration under a deal with the EU-27, they could lose their right to sell services across Europe, say worried banks in the City of London.
The prime minister had sought to prove that Britain was still an active member of the union by supporting action against Russia over Syria and the atmosphere had been “constructive”, said the aide to May after bracing for a potentially difficult summit.
She spoke up to say that Britain should not be excluded from decisions while it remained a member during a discussion of plans the other leaders made without her at a summit of the EU-27 last month.
Without taking on the full responsibilities of membership, the profitable parts of their union, such as free access to the market for certain sectors would not be allowed as the leaders were clear that they would not allow Britain to “cherry pick”.
(Adapted from CNBC)