March 23, 2018 / 6:13 PM / 4 months ago

Who's your friend? Wistful EU embraces May before Brexit

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - With Brexit a year away, European Union leaders made a point on Friday of embracing Theresa May, with some treating her troubles with Russia and the United States as an opportunity to show Britain who its friends are.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The prime minister won a display of continental solidarity in her push to punish Moscow for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury. It surprised some British officials and contrasted sharply with the past two years of frosty summitry since Britons voted to quit the bloc and seek a better global role alone.

Summit chair Donald Tusk, so often a prophet of doom for Britain’s prospects after Brexit, hailed the warm atmosphere:

“In these difficult circumstances, I am personally especially pleased that, despite the tough Brexit negotiations, the European Union has demonstrated unanimous and unequivocal unity with the UK in the face of this attack,” he said.

British hopes of closer bilateral relations with its similarly free-trading former colonies have been challenged by fears of a trade war with Washington. President Donald Trump has slapped new tariffs on steel imports, but offered respite on Friday to the EU after a fierce collective response from Brussels.

May made a point of staying in Brussels overnight in order to join the 27 remaining EU leaders in a joint affirmation of their belief in free trade, reminding voters back home that blocking U.S. tariff barriers was in the interest of British steelworkers.

Elsewhere in Europe, Norway’s important metals exporters got less comfort than May. Outside the European Union, Oslo was left complaining that it was not covered by Trump’s exemption order.

May’s peers, who after her departure confirmed their plan to give Britain an “ambitious” post-Brexit free trade pact, hoped she took away a message from a summit for once dominated by external challenges rather than Brexit.

“In a perverse way, Russia and the United States help us,” said one senior EU diplomat hoping to keep the British close.

“Britain has a chance to see who their real friends are.”

Few believe the British can be persuaded to change their minds on membership before March next year - though some would like that. But the approach of that deadline prompted some summiteers into wistful musings on what they saw as the ironies of Brexit.

“With the state of the world today, from Trump to Putin,” said a second EU diplomat, “this summit shows again what madness Brexit is.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, one of May’s closest allies on the continent, summed up the mood of regret:

“It’s so strange, isn’t it, that when this is going on in the world, Salisbury, the situation with the United States, and we are all standing together in solidarity ... that we now have to talk about the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU.

“Bizarre.”

Editing by Alastair Macdonald and John Stonestreet

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