May takes first step towards Brexit

Mrs May speaking during question time at the House of Commons in London yesterday. The new British Prime Minister is meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande this week.
Mrs May speaking during question time at the House of Commons in London yesterday. The new British Prime Minister is meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande this week.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

European Council presidency given up; PM stresses need for immigration control

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May said yesterday the government would ensure that it gets controls on free movement from the European Union in negotiations with the bloc following last month's Bexit vote.

Her comments came as she took the first step towards Brexit yesterday by relinquishing Britain's presidency of the European Council, ahead of her first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"I am very clear that the vote that was taken in this country on June 23 sent a very clear message about immigration - that people want control of free movement from the European Union and that is precisely what we will be doing and ensuring that we get in the negotiations," Mrs May told Parliament yesterday.

After a week of many firsts, Mrs May made her most closely watched debut, taking to the floor in Parliament to lead the combative centrepiece of the British political week: Prime Minister's Questions.

She relentlessly mocked opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who is facing a leadership challenge backed by dozens of his own MPs, using his own questions against him.

Earlier Mrs May had decided that Britain will no longer assume the six-month rotating presidency next July as planned, choosing instead to prioritise negotiations on Britain's departure from the EU. Belgium was quick to put itself forward as a replacement.

The decision was announced just hours before Mrs May's first foreign trip with a visit to Berlin for a meeting and working dinner with Dr Merkel. Mrs May will then go to Paris today for talks with French President Francois Hollande in a bid to forge a personal relationship with two leaders who will play a key role in developing Britain's new relationship with the EU.

Officials said Mrs May would repeat her call for patience as her new government works out what it hopes to achieve after ending its 43-year-old membership with the bloc.

"I am determined that Britain will make a success of leaving the European Union and that's why I have decided to visit Berlin and Paris so soon after taking office," Mrs May said in a statement.

"I do not underestimate the challenge of negotiating our exit from the EU and I firmly believe that being able to talk frankly and openly about the issues we face will be an important part of a successful negotiation."

Key sticking points in the Brexit negotiations could be freedom of movement and the timetable for triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which starts the two-year countdown to Britain's formal departure.

Britain's new foreign minister, the leading Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson, held his first talks with his EU peers this week in which he urged the bloc to leave the doors open to the UK and promised the country would continue to play a "leading role" in Europe.

Mrs May is likely to have an easier ride with Dr Merkel than with France's Socialist leader, although both have their own domestic election cycles to think about.

"May has to build bridges with her fellow leaders," said Professor Iain Begg, from the European Institute at the London School of Economics. "May has this reputation as a tough negotiator who says what she wants and wants what she says. She will be anxious to convey that she's not a soft touch."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2016, with the headline 'May takes first step towards Brexit'. Print Edition | Subscribe