British PM sticks to red line on EU migrants
British prime minister Theresa May has repeated that the UK wants free trade but not free immigration with the EU, while also speaking warmly of “friends, allies” in Europe.
Speaking to press after her EU summit debut, she said: “The UK will be a fully sovereign and independent country, free to take its own decisions on a whole host of different issues, such as how we choose to control immigration, but we still want to trade freely in goods and services in Europe”.
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“The UK remains committed to trading freely with our European neighbours”, she said.
The position was the same one she recently outlined at her Conservative Party’s conference in England, but her tone, after her first-ever EU meeting, was more cordial.
She noted that the future EU deal must “work for the interests of both sides”.
She called for “mature, cooperative” EU-UK relations and a “smooth” departure.
She also muted her previous criticism of the EU27 for having met alone to discuss EU reforms, saying on Friday that they needed a “process” to handle Brexit.
She said the UK would play a “full and productive role” in the EU Council until it departs, and that it was “enthusiastic about cooperation with our friends and allies after we leave”.
She noted that she had made strong interventions in Thursday and Friday’s talks on EU migration policy, on the need to pressure Russia on Syria, and on backing a Canada-EU free trade treaty.
“I was not backwards in coming forwards”, she said.
Those interventions stood in contrast to her Brexit presentation, which lasted just five minutes at 1AM on Friday.
Recalling the five-minute Brexit chat, Enda Kenny, the Irish leader said on Friday that May did not say “anything new, but the fact that the referendum had taken place, and there was now an acceptance of that.”
He added that May said “she herself had campaigned to stay [in the EU], but as prime minister now was wanting to see that this [Brexit] was implemented in ful”.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian leader, said of May’s EU debut: “I had a positive reaction to what the prime minister had said, her experience was impressive, it was a clear and honest briefing, she could be a good partner during the Brexit negotiations”.
He said Hungary felt close to the UK and wanted close relations after Brexit, but he warned that “not everybody belongs to this club”.
May on Friday also met European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker for lunch.
Juncker had previously said the UK cannot keep single market access if it does not let in EU migrants.
May’s office said she told him the UK wanted a “bespoke” EU deal that allowed “controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe”.
When asked about meeting May, Juncker shrugged and said “Pfff!” in what may have been a calculated insult.
The EU summit also struggled, and ultimately failed, to get the Belgian region of Wallonia to agree to a Canada free-trade pact called Ceta.
The UK exit talks are expected to start at the end of March next.
Speaking for Malta, which will help manage the negotiations as the EU presidency at the time, prime minister Joseph Muscat said the Ceta mess was a bad omen for Brexit.
"To my mind, if there are all these problems to have a simple trade agreement with Canada, just imagine [getting] an agreement with the United Kingdom”, he said.