BRUSSELS — The European Union turned the screws on Britain Wednesday, insisting that Prime Minister Theresa May’s ambition to maintain an intense post-divorce partnership where it could pick and choose in which sectors it can maintain seamless economic cooperation was nothing but a pipe dream.
Both EU President Donald Tusk and the European Parliament drafted texts making it clear that any hopes Britain could “have its cake and eat it” after Brexit, were wildly overambitious. Instead, they painted a picture of drift and economic loss for a country that has been a member of the EU since 1973.
The post-Brexit economic relationship “will only be a trade agreement,” like the EU has with a host of other nations, said Tusk, who coordinates policy between the 27 EU nations that Britain is negotiating with.
Though Britain is due to leave the EU in March 2019, there is still vast uncertainty over how it will do so and what relationship it will have with what is its biggest trading partner.
Tusk said on a free trade agreement with Britain that “we will do our best, as we did with other partners, such as Canada recently.”
The comparison stung, not least because far-flung Canada is some 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) away as opposed to the 50-kilometer stretch that separates Britain from the European mainland.
Last Friday, May laid out her hope that of “the broadest and deepest possible agreement — covering more sectors and cooperating more fully than any free trade agreement anywhere in the world.”
EU leaders have warned that May’s insistence on leaving the EU’s tariff-free single market and customs union means the close ties she is seeking are impossible.
Beyond the economic divergences, Tusk insisted cooperation should be smooth when it comes to defense, foreign affairs and facing down common threats like terrorism and international crime.
The EU parliament, which will have to approve any Brexit deal, followed with a draft resolution backed by the major parties which says that Britain should not count on being able to cherry-pick the benefits of the EU market— in her speech, May said Britain could continue to stick closely to EU laws and regulation in some sectors while retaining the ability to diverge in others.
The British government is hoping Tusk’s guidelines will be revised at the March 22-23 summit, when the 27 leaders are set to adopt the outline for future negotiations.
British Finance Minister Philip Hammond said he was not surprised that Tusk had set out “a very tough position” as new negotiations start.
“I expect that we will have a deep and constructive engagement,” he said.
And he sought to eke out a special place for the City of London’s financial services. Hammond argues that the hub “is not just a British asset but a European asset too,” and that it is in the interests of both sides to reach a deal on that.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman, James Slack, said “we look forward to seeing the final guidelines, and hope they will provide the flexibility to allow the EU to think creatively and imaginatively about our future economic partnership.”
British opponents of Brexit say Tusk’s assertion that trade will become “more complicated and costly” shows that leaving the EU is a mistake.
Labour lawmaker Chuka Umunna says “given the emerging reality about the enormous costs and sheer complexity of Brexit, everyone is entitled to keep an open mind about whether it really is the right path for the country.”
Jill Lawless contributed from London