UK’s future relations with EU now up to May, Merkel

Reuters, BERLIN and BRUSSELS

Thu, Jul 14, 2016 - Page 7

Both are pastors’ daughters who rose to the top of their conservative parties. Now, British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, equally firm but pragmatic, are to go head to head to determine Britain’s future relationship with Europe.

May is highly regarded among European officials who largely welcomed news that she was to become prime minister after fomer British prime minister David Cameron bowed out yesterday.

“Very disciplined” is how one senior German official who has worked closely with May described the Oxford University-educated daughter of a Church of England vicar.

She has “excellent” relations with French Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve, a source in Paris said.

Described by one veteran British conservative as a “bloody difficult woman,” May, 59, will need to muster all the goodwill she can in Europe.

Her task is to deal with the negotiating clout and stamina of Merkel, who in 10 years as chancellor has regularly outlasted other EU leaders at late night Brussels meetings.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, a deal on Britain’s departure from the EU must be concluded with the European Council, which groups leaders of the 27 other member states.

However, Merkel’s role is crucial. After Britons voted for “Brexit” on June 23, she met the leaders of France and Italy to plan the way ahead for the EU, showing that its biggest member states — rather than its institutions — want to determine the process.

Both women, who have been married for decades, saw off male challengers on their way to the top.

May, who has been British home secretary for the past six years, became prime minister simply because Conservative members of parliament elected her leader of the ruling party.

However, the woman who has declared “I’m not a showy politician,” is replacing the less cautious pro-EU Cameron, whose gamble in calling the referendum failed.

Merkel and May agree on one thing — in the Briton’s words: “Brexit means Brexit.”

Merkel has insisted the result of what was officially an advisory referendum must be respected.

Beyond that, battle lines are already being drawn. May said Britain would not rush to trigger formal divorce proceedings under the Lisbon Treaty.

However, Merkel wants Britain to make its intentions clear more quickly.

On Tuesday, Merkel put the ball in May’s court.

“We must now wait until Britain says what relationship it envisages with the European Union and then we will lead, in our interests, the best negotiations for our citizens in the 27 member states,” she said.

The chancellor wants to retain strong links with Britain, Germany’s fifth-biggest trading partner for goods, but her bigger priority is to hold together the remaining EU members.

British diplomats who have worked with May in Brussels rate her highly, saying she is one of the most prepared and informed ministers to negotiate with their EU partners.

Their European counterparts agree.

“She knows Brussels well, she knows the people and how things work here,” said one EU official who deals with justice and home affairs. “She has always been prepared for the meetings, active in intervening, she knows the file.”

Another senior EU official familiar with negotiations in which May has taken part described her as “very professional, very well respected.”

All the indications are May will prove a tough negotiator.

“She won’t be an easy partner for the EU,” said the senior EU official, adding that May does not change her tune easily. “She’s been extremely consistent, very persistent.”

A quiet “remain” campaigner, May must now get the best terms she can. Her biggest task is to retain British access to the EU’s single market while restricting immigration from the bloc.

EU leaders said market access can come only with a commitment to the free movement of people — just what British voters rejected.

However, May has a record of negotiating compromises with the EU in such apparently black or white situations.

As home secretary, she opted back into a European arrest warrant system and cross-border information sharing despite Britain’s “opt out” on EU justice and home affairs policy.

In brokering those “opt-ins,” the senior EU official said: “She took a great part in the negotiations herself, she didn’t rely on officials ... She has very obvious negotiating skills.”

Those skills will be put to the test by Merkel, who on Monday said: “We will have difficult negotiations with Britain, it will not be easy.”