EU tells May: give our citizens their rights or no trade talks

Daniel Boffey
Theresa May speaks at an election campaign rally near Aberdeen on 29 April. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

The European Union has called on Theresa May to provide immediate “serious and real” guarantees to its citizens living in Britain. The EU leaders took just four minutes at a special summit to agree unanimously an uncompromising opening stance in the Brexit negotiations.

Leaders said they would not discuss a future trade deal with the British government until “sufficient progress” is made on the issues of Britain’s estimated €60bn divorce bill, the rights of EU nationals in the UK, and the border in Ireland.

The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, told reporters at the special summit in Brussels that EU citizens in Britain were the number one priority, and that he had discussed the need for Britain to now live up to its warm words regarding EU citizens during a dinner with the prime minister in Downing Street last week.

“We have already prepared a text that could be adopted immediately if our British friends would be willing to sign it, but that probably won’t happen,” Juncker told reporters, adding that there was an element of tragedy in the situation of some in the UK. “I have the impression sometimes that our British friends, not all of them, do underestimate the technical difficulties we have to face,” he said, adding that May had told him, to each of his questions about the future: “Be patient and ambitious.”

Donald Tusk, president of the European council, whose members comprise the EU states, added: “For the past weeks we have heard from our British friends, also during my visit in London, that they are ready to agree on this issue quickly.

“I would like to state very clearly that we need real guarantees for our people who live, work and study in the UK and the same goes for the Brits. The commission has prepared a full list of the rights and benefits that we want to guarantee for those affected by Brexit. To achieve sufficient progress we need a serious British response.”

Donald Tusk speaks during a press conference after an EU Council meeting on 29 April about Brexit. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The two EU leaders were speaking after European leaders agreed in record time to adopt nine pages of negotiating guidelines at a special summit in Brussels. Responding to the summit’s conclusions, David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, said that he feared the coming talks would be “confrontational” and echoed May’s comments last week about member states “lining up to oppose us”.

He said: “Both sides are clear: we want these negotiations to be conducted in a spirit of goodwill, sincere cooperation and with the aim of establishing a close partnership between the UK and the EU going forward.

“But there is no doubt that these negotiations are the most complex the UK has faced in our lifetimes. They will be tough and at times even confrontational. There are already people in Europe who oppose these aims and people at home trying to undermine them. That is why it is so important that the UK has the right leadership in place.”

Speaking in the margins of the summit, leaders had taken turns all day to warn the British government that the EU was unified and would fight hard for the interests of its member states. The French president, François Hollande, told reporters: “There will inevitably be a price and a cost for Britain; it’s the choice they made.

“We must not be punitive, but at the same time it’s clear that Europe knows how to defend its interests, and that Britain will have a less good position outside the EU than in the EU.”

Asked about her suggestion last week that some in the UK were deluded about the coming talks, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said she feared there was a lack of understanding about the EU’s resolve to only talk about trade once the opening issues had been resolved.

Merkel also appeared unconvinced by May’s claim that a landslide election victory would strengthen her negotiating position in the talks when they start in June, although she applauded the prime minister for calling it. “The British prime minster thinks that a clear vote [in the general election] will strengthen her position in the negotiations,” she said. “It will certainly give her a very credible platform. The election has removed this sword of Damocles over the negotiations.”

Other leaders also appeared bemused by the prime minister’s claims about being empowered by an election triumph. Hollande, who is now in his last week as president, said: “That is an election argument that I can understand. But this is not an argument against the European Union. Why? Because the bases, the principles, the objectives are already fixed: these will be the lines that will be chosen by the negotiators and there will be no others.”

Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, claimed May had called the election to resolve an internal problem in the Conservative party. She wanted “not a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit but Theresa’s Brexit,” he said. Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, added: “I wouldn’t want to intrude in the prime minister’s decisions but the fact is we are wasting one month now.”

EU leaders at the summit also agreed a declaration that would allow northern Ireland to swiftly rejoin the EU, in the event of a vote for Irish unification. With polls showing that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland want to stay part of the UK, the Irish taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said the clause was not about triggering a poll. “I have always been very clear that the conditions for a referendum do not currently exist, but the endorsement of the principle, the potential agreement of the Good Friday agreement is hugely important.”

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said it was in Britain’s interests for the EU to be unified, as it would boost the chances of a Brexit deal. “This extraordinary meeting shows the unity of the 27 on a clear line, but this unity is not directed against Britain; I think that it is also in its interest,” he said.

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