British PM's Brexit stance gets EU leaders hopping mad

Mrs May at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday. She had told reporters she was there with a very clear message: "The UK's leaving the EU."
Mrs May at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday. She had told reporters she was there with a very clear message: "The UK's leaving the EU."PHOTO: REUTERS

Theresa May rebuffed at summit after being viewed as favouring a clean break

BRUSSELS • British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday officially confirmed at her first European Union (EU) summit as leader that her country will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty - putting Britain on a path out of the EU by the end of March next year - and was promptly greeted by a wall of silence from fellow European leaders as British-EU divisions began to take shape.

Mrs May, who gave a brief presentation on Brexit at the end of a working dinner in Brussels during the two-day summit, expressed hopes that Britain's split from the EU will be amicable and that the country will remain fully engaged with the EU until Brexit.

She said Britain intends to remain a "strong and dependable partner" afterwards.

But Mr Donald Tusk, president of the leaders' council, told Mrs May it might not be that simple. He informed her during a closed-door session in Brussels that the remaining 27 members will continue to meet without Britain despite her protests, according to an official with knowledge of the discussions.

"It's not our decision, it's not our choice" for Britain to leave, Mr Tusk said at a press conference yesterday. "I would prefer 28 member states not only for the next months, but also the next years and decades."

Mrs May, however, dampened Mr Tusk's hopes that the decision might be reversed. "I am here with a very clear message," she told reporters on her way to the talks. "The UK's leaving the EU."

The starkness of her message will encourage the view that her government wants a clean break, even from the single market, and that approach is already raising the hackles of some other European leaders, as they stake out their positions ahead of formal negotiations.

European leaders declined to engage with Mrs May after her address to the gathering, Mr Tusk said, because they have ruled out any discussions before she formally invokes Article 50. Mrs May had said she hoped to be able to begin informal discussions in advance of the formal negotiations, which could last as long as two years.

Other leaders struck a harsher tone than Mr Tusk. French President Francois Hollande warned Mrs May that she is setting herself up for a bumpy ride, and centre-right leaders from German Chancellor Angela Merkel's European alliance insisted in their private talks before the summit that Britain will have to pay a price for leaving.

Said Mr Hollande as he arrived at the Brussels meeting: "Madame May wants a hard Brexit. That means hard negotiations."

Dr Merkel said: "(Mrs May) said the negotiations should be undertaken for the good not only of Britain, but also not to the disadvantage of the European Union. In practice, that will be a difficult path."

Back home, Mrs May's Conservative Party held the parliamentary seat vacated by her predecessor David Cameron in the new premier's first electoral test.

Conservative candidate Robert Courts won the special election in Witney, Oxfordshire, but with a narrower majority over the Liberal Democrats, the Press Association reported early yesterday.

In a second by-election in Yorkshire, Labour candidate Tracy Lynn Brabin retained the seat formerly held by Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in June.

The results preserve the status quo in Parliament, where Mrs May has a narrow working majority of 16 seats in the House of Commons.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'British PM's Brexit stance gets EU leaders hopping mad'. Print Edition | Subscribe