Brexit: We won’t let Britain split the EU member states’ united front in talks, Austrian PM says

Sebastian Kurz warns the UK as Austria takes up rotating European Council presidency

Jon Stone
Brussels
Tuesday 03 July 2018 17:22
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Sebastian Kurz emphasises importance of 'unity of the 27' during Brexit talks

Austria’s chancellor has warned Britain against trying to divide EU countries to gain an advantage in Brexit talks.

Speaking at the European Parliament as his country took over the European Council’s rotating presidency, Sebastian Kurz said Austria would “preserve the unity of the 27” in Brexit matters.

Austria is taking the reins in setting the agenda at EU summits from now until next year – a crucial period for Brexit talks that should include the meeting where the final deal is planned to be signed off in October.

British diplomats have been frustrated that the EU will only let Britain negotiate with Michel Barnier of the European Commission rather than speak to member states directly.

Theresa May has been strictly excluded from debating Brexit with other leaders when she attends meetings. In the most recent Brussels conference last week she was allowed to make only a short speech to dinner with no actual dialogue on the issue, while the main Brexit discussion took place after she had left the city.

A senior cabinet source suggested in June that the UK wanted to engage with the EU27 to kick-start the stalled talks, but the likelihood of this happening seems slim.

“Of course as the presidency in office there are various issues on the table that we haven’t chosen – I’m thinking of Brexit. Of course we’re unhappy that the United Kingdom is poised to leave the European Union but more important than that is managing an orderly departure,” Mr Kurz told MEPs.

“That is what is important. We need sound political and economic relations with the Untied Kingdom and I am very grateful to the European Union’s lead negotiator, grateful to him for everything he has done. We will do our best to support him and also preserve the unity of the 27 in these matters,” he added.

Some Brexiteers had hoped the Austrian presidency might prove more amenable to Britain’s Brexit ambitions because the country’s governing coalition includes a eurosceptic far-right party, but the central European state has taken a similar line to other nations so far.

Only Hungary’s populist government has stepped out of line recently, with the country’s foreign minister warning that the failure to do a deal with Britain would be devastating for the bloc.

Leo Varadkar criticises government for not planning for Brexit before EU referendum

Most EU leaders have been polite with the UK during negotiations, though some have appeared frustrated at the lack of progress and apparent deadlock in Theresa May’s Cabinet. On Thursday Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, said he believed the UK should have produced a Brexit white paper two years ago, or ideally before the Brexit referendum.

Speaking during the same European Parliament session as Mr Kurz, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told MEPs: “We have been waiting for months now for the white paper from No 10 Downing Street and we will analyse it once we receive it.

“We will not accept that the Irish issue is isolated in such a way that it is the only issue not resolved at the end of these discussions.”

Austria’s rotating presidency is expected to focus on issues of migration, a major issue in the country which has seen rising support for the far right in recent elections.

Talks between the UK and EU are currently at a virtual standstill while Ms May’s cabinet meets to draw up a policy on trade and the Northern Ireland border, expected to be published later this month. The EU says a deal must be concluded by October.

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