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France warns UK’s May of hard Brexit talks

BRUSSELS (AFP) – 

French President Francois Hollande on Thursday warned British Prime Minister Theresa May during her first European Union summit that she would face tough negotiations if she insists on a “hard Brexit”.

May is calling on EU leaders to work together for a “smooth” withdrawal following Britain’s shock June vote to leave the bloc, but Hollande said her demands mean she will not get an easy ride.

“I have said it very clearly; Madame Theresa May wants a hard Brexit, then talks will be hard too,” he told reporters as he arrived for the two-day talks in Brussels.

May’s announcement earlier this month that she intended to start the formal exit process by the end of March was welcomed by EU leaders, who are pressing for a swift divorce to limit damaging uncertainty.

But she angered many member states by stating her intention to limit EU migration into Britain, while also seeking “maximum freedom” to operate in the EU’s single market — two things Brussels says are incompatible.

Hollande’s comments were in stark contrast to EU president Donald Tusk, who had earlier taken pains to welcome May, after she was excluded from last month’s summit of 27 leaders in Bratislava.

“Some media described her first meeting in the European Council as entering the lion’s den. It’s not true. It’s more like a nest of doves,” the former Polish premier told reporters.

“She’ll be absolutely safe with us. And I hope that she will also realise that the European Union is simply the best company in the world.”

However, he repeated that there would be no negotiations before Britain triggers Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon treaty, which begins a two-year countdown to leaving.

– ‘Smooth, constructive process’ –

May made clear on her arrival at the summit that Britain was on its way out of the EU, but said it would play a full part as long as it remained a member.

This included backing a “robust and united” response to Russia’s actions in Syria, she said, after Tusk said they should “keep all options open, including sanctions”.

“The UK is leaving the EU but we will continue to play a full role until we leave and we’ll be a strong and dependable partner after we’ve left,” May said.

Over a working dinner on Thursday evening, she will urge EU leaders to help make Brexit work for both sides, insisting that she does not want it to be “damaging” for the rest of the bloc, a source in her office said.

“We want our departure to be a smooth, constructive, orderly process, minimising uncertainty,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But her determination to prioritise cutting immigration, even at the expense of access to the single market, has sent the pound plunging and alarmed investors worldwide.

After the summit ends on Friday, May will hold her first bilateral talks with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, over lunch.

His spokeswoman said it would be an “introductory” meeting with no talk of Brexit.

– Government divided –

One major problem May faces is that even her own government cannot agree on its strategy for Brexit, with some backing a “hard” break but others seeking continued ties to protect the economy.

“The British have shown a total lack of preparation politically or administratively. It’s only now that they are waking up to the immensity of the task,” an EU diplomat said.

Her timetable also risks being upset by a legal challenge at the High Court over her refusal to allow parliament a vote before she triggers Article 50. A decision is due by the end of the year.

Another domestic headache is Scotland, where a majority voted to stay in the EU and whose nationalist government is threatening a second referendum on independence if it is forced to leave the single market.

In a sign of the complexity of the discussions ahead, May indicated Wednesday that she could seek to extend the negotiation process, telling lawmakers it might take “two years or more”.

© 2016 AFP