It's 'hard Brexit' or 'no Brexit', warns EU's Tusk

MR DONALD TUSK, making it clear that there will no compromises where the EU's interests are concerned.
MR DONALD TUSK, making it clear that there will no compromises where the EU's interests are concerned.

European Council president says Britain can stay in regional bloc if it changes its mind

LONDON • "Hard Brexit" or "no Brexit" - take your pick. That was the message European Council president Donald Tusk fired at Britain as he signalled that the process of disentangling from the bloc may take longer than two years.

In a Brussels speech stressing Europe's red lines in the Brexit negotiations set to start before April next year, Mr Tusk said it is time British Prime Minister Theresa May realised that the withdrawal from the European Union (EU) "will be painful for Britons".

The hard-line stance reflects the European view that Britain should not get concessions for leaving the 28-member bloc to avoid more secession talks. The ratcheting up of the rhetoric may fan concern in financial markets that Britain is set to lose the benefits of being a member of Europe's single market if it focuses on curbing immigration.

Mr Tusk said Brexit will feature "no cakes on the table, for anyone" but rather "only salt and vinegar".

"Our task will be to protect the interests of the EU as a whole and the interests of each of the 27 member states," he told a conference on Thursday. "There will be no compromises in this regard."

Britain's plan to quit the EU will leave the bloc's No. 2 economy without privileged access to the world's biggest consumer market. Such a prospect has caused the pound to fall to a three-decade low on foreign exchange markets.

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There will be no cakes on the table, for anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar.

MR DONALD TUSK, making it clear that there will no compromises where the EU's interests are concerned.

Mr Tusk had more bad news for Mrs May. He predicted that the Brexit process would last longer than the two years for negotiations stipulated in the EU treaty.

But he said that with struggling continental economies facing the threat of barriers going up in a key export market, any British decision to reverse course after triggering the departure talks would be accepted by the rest of the EU. "In my opinion, the only real alternative to a 'hard Brexit' is 'no Brexit'," he said.

His warning came as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would introduce a Bill aimed at winning independence from Britain, accusing the government of pushing for a "hard Brexit". In response, a spokesman for Mrs May's office said: "This issue was addressed in 2014. We should focus on working together on the best deal for the UK."

At another event in Brussels on Thursday, a veteran EU civil servant said that once the exit negotiations with Britain begin, the unity of the other member states may be tested.

"At the moment, what we are seeing is the 27 member states sticking together and issuing statements of unity and determination to move forward together, but it hasn't started yet," said the European Com- mission's Mr Jonathan Faull, who handled its talks with Britain before the Brexit referendum in June.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2016, with the headline 'It's 'hard Brexit' or 'no Brexit', warns EU's Tusk'. Print Edition | Subscribe