Prime minister gives combative speech after EU leaders’ rejection of Chequers plan
Theresa May has accused the European Union of not treating the UK with respect, in a hastily arranged Downing Street statement a day after she was humiliated at the Salzburg summit when EU leaders declared her Chequers plan would not work.
A combative prime minister said she stood by Chequers and added that throughout the Brexit negotiations she had treated her counterparts with “nothing but respect” and added: “The UK expects the same.”
May said the two sides remained “a long way apart” but insisted the UK was prepared to negotiate, and called on the EU to explain what it believed was wrong with her trade proposals, although significantly she did not mention Chequers by name.
“It is not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals without a detailed explanation and counter proposals,” May said. “So we now need to hear from the EU what the real issues are and what their alternative is so that we can discuss them.”
The prime minister also signalled that the UK would unilaterally safeguard the rights of the EU citizens living in the country in an attempt to reassure them that the impasse in negotiations would not affect their status.
“There are over 3 million EU citizens living in the UK who will be understandably worried about what the outcome of yesterday’s summit means for their future. I want to be clear with you that even in the event of no deal your rights will be protected. You are our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues. We want you to stay,” May said.
Ministers are expected to confirm details in a couple of weeks, after the party conference season.
At the EU summit in Salzburg on Thursday May was ambushed by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the EU council president, Donald Tusk, who embarrassed the prime minister by declaring that Chequers would not work.
Downing Street is calculating that May can win support by appearing to stand up to the EU, although her critics in the party believe this would be the moment to give up the Chequers plan, which is an attempt to ensure that there is no return to a hard border in Ireland.
Chequers proposes the UK shares a common rulebook for goods and services after Brexit in an attempt to prevent a return of customs checks for goods crossing the Irish border. But EU leaders believe it will undermine the single market by giving British companies a competitive advantage and pose a threat to the “European project”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the European Reform Group of hard BrexitTories, said that Salzburg was a “failure” and repeated that it was time to abandon Chequers and propose a Canada-style free-trade deal. But he also accused the EU of not acting in good faith, and praised May for showing “steely resolve”.
The prime minister repeatedly rejected an EU backstop proposal which would see Northern Ireland remain inside the customs union if the UK could not agree a free trade agreement with Brussels in the divorce talks.
Ratcheting up the language on the issue, May said: “Creating any form of customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would not respect that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, in line with the principle of consent, as set out clearly in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
“It is something I will never agree to – indeed, in my judgment it is something no British prime minister would ever agree to. If the EU believe I will, they are making a fundamental mistake.”
EU diplomats warned that the prime minister’s statement only made a no-deal scenario more likely, and expressed their astonishment at May’s bellicose tone. “She is now playing into a negative dynamic,” one diplomat said. “My best assessment is that rhetoric won’t bring an orderly exit. I think she should have taken that away from the 27 approach [in Salzburg].”
In her statement the prime minister took aim at the European council president, Donald Tusk. While some EU diplomats admitted to feeling uncomfortable at the bluntness of Tusk’s message, there was general support for the substance of his statement in which he had repeated Brussels’ negative assessment of the economic planks in the Chequers plan. An EU official said: “The EU’s position has been clear for a long time. The EU27 expressed their unity on this in Salzburg.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, criticised both the prime minister and the European Union in his statement: “Theresa May’s Brexit negotiating strategy has been a disaster. The Tories have spent more time arguing among themselves than negotiating with the EU.
“From day one, the prime minister has looked incapable of delivering a good Brexit deal for Britain. The political games from both the EU and our government need to end because no deal is not an option.”