May Seeks Allies in Brexit Talks on Slovakia, Poland Visits

  • Eastern European visit follows trips to Germany, France, Italy
  • Poles view Brexit as chance ‘to put Brussels in its place’

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May met her Slovakian counterpart, Robert Fico, ahead of a trip to Poland as she sought allies for her Brexit negotiations in countries skeptical about aspects of the European Union yet with hundreds of thousands of citizens dependent on jobs in the U.K.

“It matters to both of us that we maintain the closest possible relationship once the U.K. has left the European Union,” May said at a joint press conference in Bratislava on Thursday. “It will take time to define the nature of that relationship, which is why I have said we will not trigger Article 50 before the end of the year.”

Fico called on May to dedicate “special attention”’ to the status of Slovaks working in the U.K. and said that the EU, for which Slovakia holds the rotating presidency, needed to offer a "new vision" to avoid further "fragmentation and destabilization" of the bloc.

May travels to Warsaw Thursday afternoon to meet the Polish prime minister, Beata Szydlo. She has already visited Germany, France and Italy in her first two weeks in office as her government considers how to achieve the greatest access to the EU market while cutting immigration from the bloc. The formal process for leaving the EU begins when Britain triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Poles provide the U.K.’s largest group of foreign nationals, with 850,000 living in Britain. Their rights as Britain leaves the EU are a source of great concern in Warsaw, according to Pawel Swidlicki, policy analyst at Open Europe, a London-based think tank.

“An absolute red line for Poland is the rights of Poles already in the U.K.,” he said. “They’d also like some kind of non-discriminatory route for migrants in the future, and for Britain to continue contributing to the EU budget.”

May will be able to reassure them on the first of those. Speaking in Rome on Wednesday, she said she wants, expects and intends to be able to guarantee the rights of EU citizens already living in the U.K.

“The only circumstances in which that would not be possible would be if the rights of British citizens living in other EU member states were not guaranteed,” she said. “But I hope that this is an issue that we can address early on.”

View From Poland

According to Swidlicki, Poles have viewed the Brexit vote as a rejection of the EU institutions, rather than a response to migration from eastern Europe. “Poland specifically, but more generally eastern Europe, sees Brexit as an opportunity to put Brussels in its place,” he said.

He said Szydlo will also seek to keep Britain engaged with delivering security to its European neighbors against any attempts by Russia to increase its sphere of influence.

May told reporters after talks with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi that she’s got “an open mind” on what sort of deal the U.K. should negotiate over Brexit and that ministers have already started meeting “to prepare and plan for an orderly departure.”

Meanwhile, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker named Michel Barnier, the architect of some of the EU’s most controversial financial regulation, to lead the negotiations with Britain. Barnier, a Frenchman, frequently traded blows with the U.K. during his time as head of banking legislation from 2010 to 2014.

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