Brexit begins to take shape as sharp divisions emerge at May's first EU summit as prime minister

British Prime minister Theresa May delivers a speech during a press conference on the second day of a European Union leaders summit on Oct 21, 2016.
British Prime minister Theresa May delivers a speech during a press conference on the second day of a European Union leaders summit on Oct 21, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - The divisions between the UK and the rest of the European Union began to take shape on Thursday (Oct 20) as Germany warned Britain faces a "difficult path" at Mrs Theresa May's first summit as prime minister.

While Mrs May insisted that Britain would remain fully engaged with the EU until Brexit has been completed and intends to remain a "strong and dependable partner" afterward, Mr Donald Tusk, president of the leaders' council, told her it might not be that simple.

Mr Tusk informed May during a closed-door session in Brussels that the remaining 27 members will continue to meet without the UK, despite the protests of the British prime minister, 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 in the early hours of Friday (Oct 21). "I would prefer 28 member states not only for the next months but the next years and decades."

While Mr Tusk spoke of his sadness at the UK decision to abandon the European project, other leaders struck a harsher tone. French President Francois Hollande warned Mrs May that she is setting herself up for a bumpy ride and centre-right leaders from Angela Merkel's European alliance insisted in their private talks before the summit that Britain will have to pay a price for leaving.

"She said the negotiations should be undertaken for the good not only of Britain, but also not to the disadvantage of the European Union, so that our interests are also recognised," Chancellor Merkel said. "In practice, that will be a difficult path."

Leaders from Europe's centre-right alliance, the European People's Party, had earlier voiced concerns that the UK is trying to sow division among EU states at their own private talks before the summit, according to another official. Mrs May insisted the UK should continue to play a "full role" in EU matters until the split is finalised, though she damped Mr Tusk's hopes that the decision might be reversed.

"I'm here with a very clear message," she told reporters on her way into the talks. "The UK's leaving the EU."

"If it is reversible or not is in the British hands - I would be the happiest one if it is reversible," Mr Tusk responded afterward.

At a news conference on Friday, Mrs May reiterated her hope that Britain and the European Union would have a "mature and cooperative"relationship after Britain exits.

"Obviously we've got negotiations ahead of ourselves. Those negotiations will take time, as I say, there will be some difficult moments, we are going to need some give and take," she said.

The UK's hardline stance leading up to negotiations has helped member states coalesce around a common crisis, according to German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

"Great Britain has managed to unite continental Europe and Theresa May has done that wonderfully with her speech at the party conference of the Conservative Party," Mr Schaeuble said at a panel discussion in Berlin on Thursday, referring to an address the Prime Minister made to her delegates in which she outlined parts of her strategy.

Though Brexit is a long-term loss for the EU, "some things will be easier in the short term in Europe."

Mrs May's message to the 27 other EU member states at a working dinner during the two-day summit was intended to be her strongest indication yet that she isn't seeking a close relationship between the UK and the EU after Brexit, a British official said.

The starkness of her language on Thursday 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.

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

European leaders declined to engage with Mrs May after she made a brief presentation to the gathering around midnight on Thursday, Mr Tusk said, because they have ruled out any discussions before she formally invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, putting Britain on a path out of the EU.

Mrs May has said she will pull the trigger before the end of March and had hoped to be able to begin informal discussions in advance of the formal negotiations, which will last as long as two years.

"I don't think we should be tough, but we must protect and defend the unity of the European Union," Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in an interview with France 24 on October 21.

"The British people have made a choice, which we respect. But this choice will have consequences," he said, adding that Brexit is an "alarm bell that must wake up the sleepwalker who is heading toward the cliff."