British PM Theresa May says Britain will play full part in EU until departure from bloc

Britain's Prime minister Theresa May addresses journalists as she arrives for an European Union leaders summit on Oct 20, 2016 at the European Council in Brussels.
Britain's Prime minister Theresa May addresses journalists as she arrives for an European Union leaders summit on Oct 20, 2016 at the European Council in Brussels. PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Theresa May vowed on Thursday (Oct 20) that Britain will play a full part in the European Union until it leaves, as the bloc's president promised the prime minister's first EU summit would be a "nest of doves".

The Conservative leader will use the meeting in Brussels to update EU counterparts on her plan to start formal exit talks by the end of March, paving the way for Britain to leave the bloc by early 2019.

But as she arrived to take the seat formerly occupied by David Cameron, she made clear Brexit was not the only issue on the table, calling for a "robust and united" EU response to Russia's "atrocities" in Syria.

"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've left," she told reporters.

May was excluded from last month's summit of 27 leaders in Bratislava, but EU president Donald Tusk played down speculation that the two-day meeting in Brussels would be a frosty affair.

"Some media described her first meeting in the European Council as entering the lion's den. It's not true. It's more like a nest of doves," he told reporters.

"She'll be absolutely safe with us. And I hope that she will also realise that the European Union is simply the best company in the world."

However, he repeated that there would be no negotiations before Britain triggers Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon treaty, which begins a two-year countdown to leaving.

May's plan to trigger Article 50 by March, unveiled at her party conference earlier this month, has been welcomed by European leaders who had been pressing for a swift divorce.

But she angered many member states by stating her intention to limit EU migration into Britain, while also seeking "maximum freedom" to operate in the EU's single market.

European leaders have repeatedly said the two demands are incompatible, and warned London should expect to pay a heavy price for its decision to leave.

The face-off has caused the pound to plunge and raised global economic fears about the impact of a so-called hard Brexit.

Over a working dinner on Thursday evening, May will urge EU leaders to help make Brexit work for both sides, a source in her office said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We want our departure to be a smooth, constructive, orderly process, minimising uncertainty," the source said.

After the summit ends on Friday, May will hold her first bilateral talks with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, over lunch.

His spokeswoman said it would be an "introductory" meeting with no talk of Brexit.

The British premier, who took over in July following the resignation of David Cameron, will still likely use the summit to sound out potential allies.

She has already visited Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, and had bilateral meetings planned Thursday with the leaders of Estonia and Romania.

One major problem May faces is that even her own government cannot agree on its strategy for Brexit, with some ministers pushing for a clean break with the EU and others seeking continued ties to protect the economy.

"The British have shown a total lack of preparation politically or administratively. It's only now that they are waking up to the immensity of the task," an EU diplomat said.

Her timetable also risks being upset by a legal challenge at the High Court over her refusal to allow parliament a vote before she triggers Article 50. A decision is due by the end of the year.

Another domestic headache is Scotland, which voted to stay in the EU and whose nationalist government is threatening a second referendum on independence if it is forced to leave the single market.

In a sign of the complexity of the discussions ahead, May indicated Wednesday that she could seek to extend the negotiation process, telling lawmakers it might take "two years or more".