March 2, 2018 / 5:39 PM / 4 months ago

Europe wary of May's ideas for post-Brexit harmony

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union officials reacted warily on Friday to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposals to maintain trade ties after Brexit, welcoming her tone but describing some of her demands as unrealistic.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech about her vision for Brexit, at Mansion House in London, Britain, March 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Brady/Pool

Leading figures in the European Parliament, which must ratify any deal, were withering in their scorn. The assembly’s Brexit point man Guy Verhofstadt called it “a few extra cherries on the Brexit cake”, while Manfred Weber, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said May had her “head in the sand”.

But although May did not dispel the impression of “cherry-picking” EU benefits or of trying to have Britain’s cake and eat it, EU officials working on the negotiations behind the scenes welcomed what one called her “positive directional language”.

Michel Barnier, the EU executive’s negotiator, chose to highlight what May did not ask for. He noted she had recognised that Britain must accept “trade-offs” in terms of reduced access to EU markets as she clarified once more her determination to leave both the EU’s customs union and its single market.

That, the former French minister said, would inform the EU’s own proposals next week for negotiations to start next month on a free trade agreement. But Barnier made no comment on May’s assertions that Britain could achieve “frictionless” trade and secure EU recognition for its own, independent regulations.

Barnier has long made clear, however, that May’s rejection of remaining in the customs union or single market would mean administrative hurdles to the movement of goods. The Union is deeply sceptical of suggestions to let Britain regulate itself, free of EU supervision, while retaining anything like its current access to EU markets, notably in many services.

“FANTASY”

One EU official involved in the negotiating process said May’s focus on a need to match EU standards and take part as an associate member in some EU regulatory agencies was welcome and believed that her suggestion the EU’s court play some role, if only indirectly, in supervising Britain was reasonable.

But a second EU official said: “The comprehensive system of mutual recognition she talks about won’t work for us - or for that matter lead to frictionless trade.”

May’s insistence that Britain would not engage in a “race to the bottom” to undercut standards on labour, environmental and other regulations was welcome, the official added, but there was no sign of how that could be specific and enforceable - or of whether Britain would automatically match changes in EU laws.

Her ideas of a hi-tech solution to avoiding the border checks on the island of Ireland that might disrupt the peace in the north were “sci-fi”, said the second official.

And a “customs partnership” in which the EU trusted Britain to collect tariffs for it was “fantasy”, he added - the EU is already suing over customs fraud in Britain and long memories of Britain’s “mad cow” scandal two decades ago have left Brussels wary of accepting British standards in, say, animal health.

Verhofstadt, a liberal former Belgian premier, tweeted that he would visit May on Tuesday but was unconvinced that, despite her insistence, Britain had stopped making unreasonable demands for continued market access while evading EU rules.

“May needed to move beyond vague aspirations,” Verhofstadt said. “While I welcome the call for a deep and special partnership, this cannot be achieved by putting a few extra cherries on the Brexit cake.”

Weber, who leads the parliament’s biggest bloc, tweeted: “After what I have heard today I am even more concerned. I don’t see how we could reach an agreement on Brexit if the UK government continues to bury its head in the sand like this.”

Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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