May Faces French Challenge After Merkel Presses Brexit Rules

May Meets Hollande After Merkel Brexit Showdown
  • Chancellor says no pre-negotiations ‘formally or informally’
  • May says U.K. ‘taking some time’ before notifying of Brexit

Theresa May will find that Francois Hollande wants to talk about more than just Brexit when she travels to Paris on Thursday.

One day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the British prime minister she must stick to the rules for leaving the European Union, Hollande will challenge May over plans to build a new nuclear-power plant in the southwest of England. He will also press her on an agreement that allows the U.K. to conduct passport checks on French soil, according to a French government official with knowledge of the president’s plans.

May’s meeting in Paris underlines the balancing act the prime minister faces as she seeks to build relations with key European partners while preparing for Britain’s withdrawal from the 28-nation bloc. She will focus on shared global challenges with France as she seeks to portray the U.K. as an outward looking country ready to deal with the world.

“The reception for May could be frostier in Paris than in Berlin,” said Carsten Nickel of Teneo Intelligence. “Hollande has every incentive to use the Brexit talks to send a message to his own eurosceptic electorate: countries even flirting with the idea of leaving the EU will be worse off.”

Brexit Trigger

In Berlin on Wednesday, Merkel ruled out preliminary talks with the U.K. government on exiting the EU while offering May space to decide when her government is ready to invoke the notification necessary. The German chancellor said that EU rules stipulate a country must invoke Article 50 to start the legal process of leaving the 28-nation bloc.

“The EU treaties are very clear on this,” Merkel said at a joint press conference with May in the Chancellery during the prime minister’s first overseas visit. While the two will discuss the status of Article 50, no pre-negotiations will take place “formally or informally,” she said.

The French president plans to seek reassurance from May on her commitment to the Hinkley Point nuclear power station, according to the government official. Hollande’s office considers backing for the project as both an important signal on bilateral relations and key to EDF, the French nuclear giant, to remain globally competitive.

The two will also discuss the need to adapt the 17-year-old bilateral agreement that maintains the U.K.’s EU border in France, meaning that passengers and vehicles at Calais go through U.K. security and other checks on French soil before crossing the Channel. The accord also means migrants without requisite visas are blocked from traveling to the U.K. and stranded in France. The prime minister’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on what would be discussed.

May’s visit to Paris comes a day after her first Prime Minister’s Questions in London, in which she showed herself ready to pour scorn on opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader will launch his leadership defense Thursday against challenger Owen Smith by announcing plans to crack down on gender pay inequality in companies and target the "five ills of 21st century Britain".

Pound’s Plunge

May had her first chance in Berlin to size up the woman who will be one of her main interlocutors as she navigates Britain’s exit from the world’s largest trading bloc. Both pastors’ daughters, she and Merkel find themselves at the center of economic and political turmoil not of their making which prompted a plunge in the pound and has sent shock waves across Europe.

“All of us will need time to prepare for these negotiations and the United Kingdom will not invoke Article 50 until our objectives are clear,” May said. “We will be taking some time to determine the principles and our objectives before we trigger that formal process of negotiation.”

Merkel’s intransigence on the legal process was tempered by a willingness to give May the time she needs to prepare her government’s stance going into eventual Brexit talks. While the EU treaties state that official notification must be made, they do not stipulate when a request has to be made, she said. All the same, the EU’s patience isn’t limitless.

“Nobody wants a waiting game -- neither the British people nor the EU member states,” Merkel said. “Everybody has an interest that these things are prepared carefully, that the positions are clear -- and I think it’s fully understandable that a certain amount of time is needed for that.”

No Seat at Table

While both leaders committed to a constructive bilateral relationship in the post-Brexit world, the chancellor gave no illusions that the ties could be as close as with countries in the EU.

“It’s not as if the British prime minister will in future sit at the EU table,” Merkel said. “We will certainly stick up for our interests just as Britain does for its own citizens.”

The prime minister reiterated her commitment to control immigration into Britain while maintaining access to the European single markets for trade and services, something other leaders say is impossible.

“We have two women here who have got on and had a very constructive discussion,” May said. “Two women who, if I may say so, get on with the job and both want to deliver the best possible results for the people of the U.K. and the people of Germany.”

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