May strikes cordial tone at EU summit before tripping on speech

Tusk reminds British PM where her loyalty lies while Merkel tackles language question

Theresa May behaved like a model EU leader during her first European Council meeting in Brussels, making thoughtful, well-informed interventions on migration, trade policy and sanctions against Russia. She compared shoes with Angela Merkel, shared friendly words with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and won praise from officials who observed the meeting.

Despite the bonhomie, and her own impressive performance, May had to face two awkward moments during the summit. The first was at the very start, when European Council president Donald Tusk updated her on decisions made by the other 27 leaders at a meeting in Bratislava last month to which she was not invited.

May said she was unhappy with the 27 making decisions without Britain, declaring that the UK was determined to play a full and active role in the EU as long as it is a member.

The second came at about 1am on Friday, after the prime minister made a brief statement about her approach to Britain’s exit negotiations. She reminded the other leaders that she had backed Remain in the referendum and promised to take a constructive approach to the exit talks, which she hoped would lead to a smooth departure from the EU.

Tusk thanked her, but pointed out that she had made her approach to Brexit clear in this month's speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham. In the speech, May ruled out free movement of people from the EU after Brexit, rejected the Norwegian and Swiss models of co-operation with the EU and said the authority of EU law in her country would be ended in Britain "forever".

Minimum disruption

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the Birmingham speech on Britain’s EU partners, some of whom until then cherished the hope that, even if the referendum decision cannot be reversed, May would seek a “soft Brexit” with maximum continuity and minimum disruption.

Speaking after the summit, the prime minister struck a conciliatory tone, stressing that she wanted to “cement” Britain as a close partner of the EU after Brexit.

"Yes, the United Kingdom will be a fully independent, sovereign country, free to make our own decisions on a whole host of different issues, such as how we choose to control immigration. But we still want to trade freely in goods and services in Europe and the UK will continue to face similar challenges to our European neighbours. We will continue to share the same values. So I want a mature, co-operative relationship with our European partners," she said.

May reprised this line during a meeting with Juncker after the summit, telling him she wanted to see a strong and stable EU after Britain’s departure and to be close partners.

Impasse

The challenge facing Britain as it prepares to negotiate its way out of the EU was highlighted by the 11th-hour impasse over the EU’s free trade deal with

Canada

, which has been seven years in the making. And any compromise over British sovereignty in return for access to the European single market will expose May to domestic political turbulence.

Britain's Eurosceptic press worked itself up into a froth of indignation on Friday when Reuters reported that Michel Barnier, the commission's chief Brexit negotiator, wants to conduct the negotiations in French. May dodged a question on the issue, saying she would conduct the negotiations "in the way that is going to make sure we get the right deal for the United Kingdom".

When Merkel was asked about the language question, she seemed bewildered. “If I am correctly informed, we are all entitled to speak in our native tongue,” she said.