Theresa May will appeal over the head of the European Commission to the leaders of the 27 EU nations in an attempt to secure a good exit deal for the UK.
The Prime Minister will try to limit the influence of Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission’s president, and Michel Barnier, the former French Foreign Minister who will lead the Commission’s negotiating team on Brexit. Both are seen as hostile to the UK, and Mr Barnier is likely to repeat the tough line he took against the City of London while he was the Internal Market Commissioner in Brussels.
Allies of Ms May say she has had a positive response in her one-to-one meetings with other EU leaders. Any attempt to sideline the Commission would anger Mr Juncker. But Ms May is convinced that the 27 presidents and prime ministers will want to decide the key elements of the UK’s divorce settlement, while limiting the Commission’s role to the fine print.
Ms May has already met the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and continued her charm offensive in Slovakia and Poland on Wednesday. Some of her counterparts made clear they wanted the closest possible trade links with the UK after Brexit to benefit their own economy. Some leaders acknowledged that the vote for Brexit had highlighted the need for the EU to reform itself – a view not shared by the Commission.
One Brussels insider said: “There is a turf war between the Commission and the European Council [the 27 national leaders] over who will be in the driving seat on Brexit.” A pivotal figure will be Donald Tusk, president of the Council, who is likely to act as a go-between for Ms May and her fellow leaders.
After talks in Slovakia, Ms May suggested that Britain would not seek to copy Norway’s relationship with the EU. While being outside the bloc, the country has access to the single market but accepts EU rules on the free movement of people. She said: “We need to find a solution that addresses the concerns of the British people about free movement, while getting the best possible deal on trade in goods and services. We should be driven by what is in the best interests of the UK and what is going to work for the EU, not by the models that already exist.”
The Prime Minister insisted: “Once we have left the EU, we will continue to work with our partners across Europe, indeed Brexit is an opportunity to intensify those relationships. And just as we want Britain to succeed outside the EU, we want the EU to be strong and successful after we depart.”
Robert Fico, Prime Minister of Slovakia which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, urged Ms May to spell out her vision of future UK-EU relations before invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start a two-year negotiation on Brexit. “We hope that the UK will use this time before triggering Article 50 for redefining and also for formulating a vision of its relations with the EU,” he said. “We simply have to offer a new vision to our people, otherwise we will see a further fragmentation and destabilisation of European political systems.“
In Slovakia and Poland, Ms May was urged to guarantee migrants from those countries living in the UK the right to remain after Brexit. She has said the only circumstances in which that would not happen would be if British citizens living in other EU states were not granted the same right.
Speaking in Warsaw after talks with the Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, Ms May said the 850,000 Poles living in the UK “continue to be welcome and we value the contribution that they make to our country.” She added: “I understand that Poles currently living in the UK want to know whether they will retain their rights once the UK leaves the EU. I want and expect to be able to guarantee their rights in the UK. The only circumstances in which that would not be possible would be if the rights of British citizens living across the EU were not guaranteed.”
The Prime Minister condemned “the shameful and despicable attacks” against Polish and other communities since the EU referendum. “Hate crime of any kind, directed against any community, race or religion, has absolutely no place in British society,” she said
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