BRUSSELS: French President Francois Hollande warned on Saturday that Britain must pay the price for Brexit as EU leaders met to adopt guidelines for negotiations.
“There will inevitably be a price and a cost for Britain, it’s the choice they made,” Hollande said as he arrived at a Brussels summit.
“We must not be punitive, but at the same time it’s clear that Europe knows how to defend its interests, and that Britain will have a less good position outside the EU than in the EU.”
Hollande, who is entering his last days as French president, dismissed suggestions that British Prime Minister Theresa May could strengthen her negotiating hand by winning a big mandate in elections that she has called for June 8.
“I can understand the electoral argument but it will not influence the EU. The EU’s principles and the objectives are already fixed, these will be the lines chosen by negotiators.”
Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel also ruled out an advantage for May from a big election win.
“It’s an internal problem she wants to resolve in the Conservative party, to have not a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit, but Theresa’s Brexit,” he said.
“We are very united, you seem surprised, but it’s a fact.”
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, meanwhile, said it was also in Britain’s interests for the EU to be unified, as it would boost the chances of a Brexit deal.
“This extraordinary meeting shows the unity of the 27 on a clear line, but this unity is not directed against Britain, I think that it is also in its interest,” he said.
EU President Donald Tusk insisted Britain would also benefit if unity boosted the chances of a deal, after May accused the other 27 countries of ganging up on London.
“We need to remain united as the EU 27,” Tusk said as he arrived at the summit.
“It is only then that we will be able to conclude the negotiations, which means that our unity is also in the UK’s interest,” the former Polish premier told reporters.
The call for a united front comes hot on the heels of a war of words between May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said Britain should not have “illusions” about the talks.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said in an interivew published Saturday that “Britain cannot have advantages that other countries do not after its departure. Nothing is free.”
The EU 27 have considerably toughened the guidelines since Tusk first unveiled them a month ago, with Brussels also drawing up a detailed list of citizens rights.
“We also need solid guarantees for citizens and their families, who will be affected by Brexit on both sides. This must be number one priority for EU and the UK,” Tusk said.
This referred to the fate of three million EU citizens living in Britain and one million Britons on the continent, with officials hoping for a resolution on their status after the divorce by the end of the year.
The unity call comes after years of bitter internal divisions on everything from the euro and migration to how to tackle growing euroskepticism.
The British premier’s decision to call a general election on June 8, in a bid to shore up her mandate and strengthen her negotiating position, has only stiffened their resolve.
Actual Brexit talks are not expected to begin until after the British election, although the EU is set to give an official mandate to its chief negotiator Michel Barnier on May 22.
The run-up to the summit was marked by bad tempered exchanges between Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, and May.
After Merkel’s “illusions” comment, May hit back saying that “our opponents are already seeking to disrupt those negotiations — at the same time as 27 other European countries line up to oppose us.”