No Brexit Cakes, Only Salt and Vinegar, EU’s Tusk Warns May

  • Hard line drawn as both sides prepare for negotiations
  • British reversal would be acceptable, EU president says

U.K. Is Being Told It Can't Cherry-Pick EU Ties

“Hard Brexit" or “no Brexit," take your pick. That was the message European Union President Donald Tusk fired at the U.K. as he signaled the process of disentangling from the bloc may take longer than two years. 

In a Brussels speech stressing Europe’s red lines in the Brexit negotiations set to start before April, Tusk said it’s time British Prime Minister Theresa May realized that the withdrawal "will be painful for Britons."

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The hard-line stance reflects the European view that any Brexit concessions to the U.K. could fuel secessionist forces elsewhere in the 28-nation EU. The ratcheting up of the rhetoric may fan concern in financial markets that Britain is set to lose the benefits of being a member of Europe’s single market if the country continues to focus on curbing immigration.

Tusk said Brexit will feature “no cakes on the table, for anyone” but rather “only salt and vinegar.”

The warning came as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would introduce a bill next week aimed at winning independence from the U.K. Separately, a British court began hearing whether Parliament rather than May should have the power to start the exit process.

‘No Compromises’

“Our task will be to protect the interests of the EU as a whole and the interests of each of the 27 member states, and also to stick unconditionally to the treaty rules and fundamental values,” Tusk told a conference on Thursday. “There will be no compromises in this regard.”

He took aim at U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who signaled in an interview with The Sun published on Sept. 30 that Britain could regain control of immigration while retaining current economic ties to the rest of the EU. “Our policy is having our cake and eating it,” said Johnson, who helped lead the Brexit campaign in the run-up to the June referendum.

“The words uttered by one of the leading campaigners for Brexit and proponents of the ‘cake philosophy’ was pure illusion -- that one can have the EU cake and eat it too,” Tusk said.

The U.K.’s plan to quit the EU after four decades of membership risks leaving the bloc’s No. 2 economy without privileged access to the world’s biggest consumer market. Such a prospect has caused the pound to fall to a three-decade low on foreign-exchange markets.

Departure Talks

Tusk predicted that the whole Brexit process would last longer than the two years for negotiations stipulated in the EU treaty. And, with struggling continental economies facing the threat of barriers going up in a key export market, he said any U.K. government decision to reverse course after triggering the departure talks would be accepted by the rest of the EU.

“I have no doubt that this scenario would be acceptable for all European partners,” Tusk said. “The brutal truth is that Brexit will be a loss for all of us.”

At a separate event in Brussels on Thursday, a veteran EU civil servant said that once the exit negotiations with the U.K. begin the unity of the other member states may be tested.

“At the moment, what we are seeing is the 27 member states sticking together and issuing statements of unity and determination to move forward together, but it hasn’t started yet,” said Jonathan Faull, who works for the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, and who handled its talks with the U.K. before the country’s Brexit referendum.

Uncertainty

Companies must accept a degree of uncertainty over the Brexit process, said Faull, a U.K. national who is retiring at the end of 2016 after almost 40 years at the Brussels-based commission.

“Things will evolve over time and of course people can make intelligent guesses, but intelligent guesses may not be enough for the people calling for certainty having to make real-life investment decisions,” he said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen yet” and “don’t believe anybody charging you vast sums of money pretending they know.”

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