(Bloomberg) -- The divisions between the U.K. and the rest of the European Union began to take shape as Germany warned Britain faces a “difficult path” at Theresa May’s first summit as prime minister.
While May insisted Britain would remain fully engaged with the EU until Brexit has been completed and intends to be a “strong and dependable partner” afterward, EU President Donald Tusk told her it might not be that simple. Tusk informed May during a closed-door session in Brussels that the remaining 27 members will continue to meet without the U.K., despite the protests of the British prime minister, according to an official with knowledge of the discussions.
“It’s not our decision, it’s not our choice” for Britain to leave, Tusk said at a press conference in the early hours of Friday. “I would prefer 28 member states not only for the next months but the next years and decades.”
While Tusk spoke of his sadness at the U.K. decision to abandon the European project, other leaders struck a harsher tone. French President Francois Hollande warned May she is setting herself up for a bumpy ride and center-right leaders from Angela Merkel’s European alliance insisted in private talks before the summit that Britain will have to pay a price for leaving.
“She said the negotiations should be undertaken for the good not only of Britain, but also not to the disadvantage of the European Union, so that our interests are also recognized,” Chancellor Merkel said. “In practice, that will be a difficult path.”
The summit gave May a front-row view of the complexity of trade negotiations with the EU as a seven-year quest for a free-trade deal with Canada was held up by opposition from a Belgian regional parliament. Canada’s trade minster walked out of talks and said a deal looked ‘‘impossible.” Still, May said she is “optimistic” her government can win an agreement within the two-year window allowed by the Lisbon Treaty.
“I recognize the scale of the challenge ahead,” May said. “I’m sure there will be difficult moments; it will require some give and take. But I firmly believe if we approach this in a constructive spirit, as I am, we can deliver a smooth departure and build a powerful new relationship that works both for the U.K. and for the countries of the EU -- looking for opportunities not problems.”
Other leaders highlighted the Canadian talks as a warning of troubles ahead as Britain seeks to achieve May’s vision of “trading freely” with the EU while taking control of immigration into Britain.
“If there are all these problems to have a simple trade agreement with Canada, just imagine an agreement with the U.K.,” Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said after the meeting. The U.K. deal “must be inferior to membership and there could never be any sort of decoupling of any of the four freedoms,” he said. “Freedom of movement of persons is an essential part of any deal which gives access to the single market.”
Leaders from Europe’s center-right alliance, the European People’s Party, voiced concerns that the U.K. is trying to sow division among EU states at their own private talks before the summit, according to another official. May insisted the U.K. should continue to play a “full and active role” in EU matters until the split is finalized, though she damped Tusk’s hopes that the decision might be reversed.
“I’m here with a very clear message,” she told reporters on her way into the talks. “The U.K.’s leaving the EU.”
“If it is reversible or not is in the British hands -- I would be the happiest one if it is reversible,” Tusk responded afterward.
May said she will discuss trade with countries beyond Europe before quitting the EU, something her fellow leaders have said would be in breach of the bloc’s rules.
“As we prepare to leave the EU, I’ve been clear the U.K. has been discussing our future trading relationship with third countries,” May said, before insisting it would not undermine existing EU trade negotiations. “It’s about seizing the opportunities of Brexit and forging an ambitious and optimistic new role for Britain in the world.”
The U.K.’s hard-line stance leading up to negotiations has helped member states coalesce around a common crisis, according to German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.
“Great Britain has managed to unite continental Europe and Theresa May has done that wonderfully with her speech at the party conference of the Conservative Party,” Schaeuble said at a panel discussion in Berlin on Thursday, referring to an address the prime minister made to her delegates in which she outlined parts of her strategy. Though Brexit is a long-term loss for the EU, “some things will be easier in the short term in Europe.”
May’s message to the 27 other EU member states at a working dinner during the two-day summit was intended to be her strongest indication yet that she isn’t seeking a close relationship between the U.K. and the EU after Brexit, a British official said.
The starkness of her language on Thursday will encourage the view that her government wants a clean break, even from the single market, and that approach is already raising the hackles of some other European leaders, as they stake out their positions ahead of formal negotiations.
“Madame May wants a hard Brexit,” Hollande said. “That means hard negotiations.”
European leaders declined to engage with May after she made a brief presentation to the gathering around midnight on Thursday, Tusk said, because they have ruled out any discussions before she formally invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, putting Britain on a path out of the EU. May has said she will pull the trigger before the end of March and had hoped to be able to begin informal discussions in advance of the formal negotiations, which will last as long as two years.
“I don’t think we should be tough, but we must protect and defend the unity of the European Union,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in an interview with France 24 on Oct. 21. “The British people have made a choice, which we respect. But this choice will have consequences.” Brexit, he added, is an “alarm bell that must wake up the sleepwalker who is heading toward the cliff.”