British PM May says no way out of Brexit as rift with EU chiefs flare

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 3:57am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 3:57am

Theresa May insisted that Britain’s vote to leave the European Union must be honoured, as the dividing lines between the UK and the rest of the bloc hardened at her first leaders’ summit in Brussels.

European Council President Donald Tusk told the British leader that the other 27 member states will increasingly work separately, an official with knowledge of the closed-door session said. Leaders from Europe’s centre-right alliance 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.

May insisted the UK should continue to play a “full role” in EU matters until the split is finalised, while damping any speculation that the decision might be reversed.

“I’m here with a very clear message, the UK’s leaving the EU,” May told reporters Thursday.

May’s message to the 27 other EU member states, at a working dinner during the two-day summit, will 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. That approach is already raising the hackles of some other European leaders.

French President Francois Hollande said that by signalling she wants to sever most of UK ties to the EU, leaving its single market and customs union, May is setting up her government for a bumpy ride.

“Madame May wants a hard Brexit, that means hard negotiations,” Hollande said as he arrived at the Brussels meeting.

Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, opened the summit warning May that other leaders will have support from the parliament for a hard line with Britain.

“A very simple principle must be the basis for all our subsequent work: the best possible deal with the EU is membership of the EU,” Schulz said, according to an e-mailed transcript of his speech.

Britain’s decision to go for a ‘hard’ Brexit promises rough ride ahead

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel is among those who have said the bloc must face reality on Brexit, other have held out hopes that May might change course. The starkness of her message on Thursday will instead encourage the view that her government wants a clean break, even from the single market.

Tusk said last week that Britain could ultimately decide to stay in the EU because the 28-nation bloc wouldn’t offer May any alternative deal to a hard Brexit, which would probably mean the loss of tariff-free trading rights. Ahead of Thursday’s talks, he sought to smooth over the divisions.

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

Still, Tusk and other European leaders have told May that they won’t enter into talks over the terms of any Brexit deal until she formally invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, putting Britain on an irreversible path out of the EU.

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.

“A declaration by Mrs May is not an exit notification,” Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern told reporters in Brussels. “It will be clear today that the Brexit negotiation process can only begin when there’s a formal notification.”

Leaders from the European People’s Party, which includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU and is the largest grouping in the bloc, agreed at a meeting before the summit that they must remain united in the face of British attempts to divide them, according to an official who asked not to be identified because the talks were private. It must be clear there is a price for leaving, the official said..