May Hears Hard Truths About Brexit as EU Prepares for Talks

  • Germany says EU won’t divide, Denmark warns on trade deal
  • Ireland and U.K. differ over paying an exit bill to EU

U.K.'s May Hears Hard Truths as EU Preps for Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May was served a series of reminders about how tough the European Union plans to be in the looming Brexit negotiations.

From Berlin to Brussels, interviews and leaked documents showed EU leaders vowing to unite in the talks, and to ensure the U.K. loses more than it gains from quitting the bloc.

Read more: Brexit Talks Are Almost Here. What Do the EU Nations Really Want?

Germany said the EU won’t splinter or grant too many concessions to the British, while Denmark warned May’s hoped-for trade deal with the EU could take as long as 15 years to seal. Even traditional ally Ireland sided with its EU partners in pushing Britain to pay an exit fee, while also seeking to lure banks from London.

The messages came as May prepares this month to trigger two years of discussions, and underscore just how hard it will be for the U.K. to deliver the successful Brexit that May is promising voters.

For more on the next steps in the Brexit process, click here

EU leaders were continuing talks in Brussels on Friday after May spent Thursday among them. She flew home late Thursday after pledging to build the “independent, self-governing global Britain the British have called for.”

As May sounded optimistic, Europe’s approach was laid bare in a memo circulating within the German government and obtained by Bloomberg News.

It urged EU governments to “not let ourselves be divided,” as the “foremost priority” must be to protect the bloc’s cohesion. It also stressed there should be a difference between life inside the bloc and outside it.

“Brexit will mean less cooperation and economic integration compared to EU membership,” and the U.K will be treated as a “third country,” the document said. “Brexit thus becomes a step backward which will have an effect on Britain.”

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Divorce Timing

In another blow to Britain, Germany sided with European Commission negotiator Michel Barnier in saying the divorce should be arranged before a new trading relationship is discussed. Britain would prefer to hold the talks in parallel.

QuickTake Brexit’s Costs: Will Britain Pay Up?

May’s hopes of sealing a fresh trade deal by 2019 were also undermined by Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen, who said such a pact could take 15 years to agree. May said in Brussels that she’s still aiming for a “good and comprehensive” accord and working to a two-year deadline -- although she hinted that she wasn’t necessarily talking about the trade deal being fully concluded in that time, only its “framework.”

Meantime, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny warned May will need to face up to paying for Britain’s previous commitments to the EU. “When you sign on for contracts you commit yourself to participation and obviously the extent of that level of money will be determined,” Kenny told reporters.

In an interview with the BBC, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said it wouldn’t be “reasonable” to expect Britain to accept a “vast” bill to settle its liabilities, suggesting his government would fight any demand for payment.

EU Benefits

For all the threats, Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, told the BBC that British citizens should be able to apply on an individual basis to keep some benefits of EU membership including freedom of movement.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel also held out hope that the split may still not go through.

“Maybe during the procedure of divorce they will say ‘we love you that much that we are not able to conclude that divorce,”’ he told the Independent digital newspaper.

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