German ally of Merkel says Theresa May embraces UKIP position
Rest of EU to be ‘extremely tough’ in negotiations to leave
Manfred Weber, leader of the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament, said May’s vow to give priority to regaining U.K. control over immigration at the expense of losing privileged access to the EU single market mimicked the U.K. Independence Party. She outlined her Brexit stance at a Conservative Party conference in early October.
“When I listen to Theresa May’s speech at the Tory convention, then I have to say it’s not more than a UKIP speech five years ago,” Weber, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said in an interview on Wednesday in Brussels. “It is a copy-and-paste approach. It’s a disaster running with this populist approach.”
Continental Europe’s position toward the U.K. is hardening as May gears up to start the two-year Brexit negotiations, revealing a sense in the rest of the EU that the bloc’s survival requires upholding its tenet on the free movement of people. With anti-establishment parties on the scene across Europe and national elections due in Germany and France next year, the EU would risk stoking centrifugal forces by compromising with the U.K. over the terms of Brexit.
“We have to create a kind of firewall to this,” Weber said. “London has to see that, from the Brussels side, we are very committed to being extremely tough in these negotiations.”
In a sign of the unity over Brexit in the other 27 national capitals, EU President Donald Tusk said last week that Britain faces a choice between a “hard Brexit” or “no Brexit” and that it’s time May realized the withdrawal “will be painful for Britons.” Weber echoed the remarks about the economic consequences for the U.K., including its role as a leading banking center.
“There are a lot of friends who think already about how we can benefit economically from this development — about the financial sector, how many companies will leave,” he said. “There are debates going on in this direction.”
Beyond that, the U.K. will face enormous technical challenges extricating itself from the EU after more than four decades of membership rooted in reams of European rules and regulations, according to Weber.
“I see thousands of questions on the table — from fisheries policy in Northern Ireland to the financial sector to the partnership in the fight against terror with the exchange of data,” he said. This will cause “great damage for both sides.”
At the same time, the U.K. government faces the threat of provoking Scottish independence and creating a barrier between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland — a border area that Weber called “extremely sensitive.”
Weber said U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who helped lead the Brexit campaign in the run-up to the June referendum in which 52 percent of British voters opted to quit the bloc, shares the blame for a “catastrophe” along with U.K. politicians such as former UKIP leader Nigel Farage.
“Why did they create this big damage?” Weber said. “Why couldn’t they convince the people to go in a different direction? You hear nothing from the Brexit campaigners. They are not anymore on this planet.”
He called the British government’s attitude one of “arrogance” and said the messy situation in the U.K. has a positive aspect for the rest of the EU: people and governments there see the dangers of leaving the bloc.
“We can learn from the Brexit example,” Weber said. “If you try to copy populists, you make them even stronger and you risk a lot for your country.”