Saturday

1st Oct 2016

Theresa May's first steps pose problems for EU

  • May: the UK "needs some time to prepare" for Brexit negotiations. (Photo: Reuters)

The new British prime minister, Theresa May, took office on Wednesday (13 July) amid indications she might not be an easy partner for the EU in talks to organise the UK's exit from the bloc.

In phone talks with German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Francois Hollande and Irish prime minister Enda Kenny, she said the UK would "need some time to prepare" for Brexit negotiations.

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She added she hoped the talks "could be conducted in a constructive and positive spirit", according to her office.



But EU leaders have started to put pressure on her to trigger Article 50, the procedure to exit the EU.

Hollande "repeated his desire that negotiations for Britain's exit from the European Union should be launched as quickly as possible", a statement from his office said.

In his congratulation letter to May, European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said that the UK and the EU had to "address soon" the "new situation" created by the Brexit vote on 23 June.

He added he looked forward to learning about May's "intentions in this regard."

On Sunday, Merkel had told Germany's ZDF channel that "the decision has been taken … and the next step is to invoke Article 50."

In an interview with the Polish weekly Politiyka, European Council president Donald Tusk said on Wednesday that "no-one should be seething with desire to punish, humiliate [the UK] for what they have done to us", but he added that "we cannot let them profit from Brexit, as that would be lethal for the EU".

'Bold new positive role'

In her first statement as prime minister, Theresa May focused on domestic issues and did not develop her views on Brexit.

"We are living through an important moment in our country’s history. Following the referendum, we face a time of great national change," she said.

"I know because we’re Great Britain, that we will rise to the challenge. As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us," she added.

"That will be the mission of the government I lead, and together we will build a better Britain."

May, who is often described as a "reluctant Remainer" because she opposed Brexit but did not really participate in the referendum campaign, appointed several eurosceptic and "Brexiteers" in her cabinet.

Eurosceptic Philip Hammond, who was foreign secretary, has been appointed chancellor of the exchequer and will defend the City of London's interest in the future exit talks.

Brexiteer Liam Fox is the new international trade secretary, at a moment when Britain will have to negotiate new trade deals as it leaves the EU. 

The home office went to Amber Rudd, a Remain supporter.

'Retro-nationalists'

Two high-profile appointments could complicate relations with the EU, however.

In a surprise move, May appointed Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. Johnson was a leader of the Brexit campaign who gave up running for prime minister amid Tory part infighting.

Johnson, who will make his first EU appearance at a foreign ministers meeting next Monday (18 July), is not a popular figure in Brussels.

Last week in the European Parliament, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said that Johnson was part of a group of "retro-nationalists … not patriots".

Johnson is known in the EU capital as a former Daily Telegraph journalist who fuelled euroscepticism in the UK with inaccurate and sometimes fabricated stories.

As an MP and former London mayor, he is famous for his gaffes.

'British humour has no borders'

In April, he suggested that US president Barack Obama opposed Brexit because he was "half-Kenyan" with an "ancestral dislike of the British Empire".

In May, he won a "most offensive Erdogan poem" competition in which he portrayed Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan having sex with a goat.

"Clearly British humour has no borders," the leader of the liberal group in the EU parliament, Guy Verhofstadt said on Twitter after the new British cabinet was announced.

Another important portfolio will go to a Brexiteer. David Davis, a Europe minister in the 1990s, was named secretary of state for exiting the European Union.

In a blog post published on Monday and updated on Thursday after his appointment, Davis said that Brexit "favours an export-based growth strategy".

He said the UK should take "a little time” before triggering Article 50.

'Continued tariff-free access'

"The negotiating strategy has to be properly designed, and there is some serious consultation to be done first," Davis wrote in the blog post.

He explained that consultations would have to take place with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland as well as with business bodies, trade unions and universities.

"We need to take a brisk but measured approach to Brexit," he wrote. "The ideal outcome, (and in my view the most likely, after a lot of wrangling) is continued tariff-free access."

He said the "probable formal departure from the EU" would be "around December 2018".

"Once the European nations realise that we are not going to budge on control of our borders, they will want to talk, in their own interest,” he wrote.

“There may be some complexities about rules of origin and narrowly-based regulatory compliance for exports into the EU, but that is all manageable.”

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexit: preparing for a bitter divorce

Conservatives Brexiteers and Labour leadership are increasingly leaning away from the Norwegian-style deal with the EU, towards a UK-specific arrangement.

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