Across Europe, reaction to Theresa May’s chest-thumping promise to her Conservative Party to deliver “a deal that works for Britain” largely amounted to a collective shrug.
The non-response from the European Commission in Brussels Monday was typical of the tone — a classic bureaucratic rejoinder by the EU machinery that made clear the U.K. could issue whatever wish list it wanted, but would dictate nothing. A spokesman for President Jean-Claude Juncker simply repeated EU leaders’ longstanding position that negotiations over the U.K.’s departure would begin only upon formal, written notification.
“We will work constructively on the basis of a notification, not of a speech,” the spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, said in the Commission’s daily press briefing. “Until this letter arrives, there will be no negotiations.”
Schinas, however, said the Commission’s own chief negotiator would soon take up new office space on the fifth floor of the institution’s headquarters in Brussels, hire a staff of 10 to 20 people, and begin traveling the Continent for consultations with leaders in the 27 remaining EU countries.
Reaction to May was particularly muted in Germany, which was celebrating a national holiday commemorating the country’s reunification.
If there was any doubt that the pressure of Brexit remains squarely on the U.K., the currency markets quickly dispelled it: The pound fell Monday morning to a three-year low against the euro as the global financial system digested May’s announcement in her speech on Sunday that she would trigger formal negotiations by the end of March 2017.
EU officials said May had made some efforts to be sure that her counterparts abroad were not surprised by her remarks. Before her speech to the Tories at their conference in Birmingham, May telephoned Juncker as well as President François Hollande of France, and presumably other senior leaders, to give them a personal preview.
‘A lot of work to do’
But in European capitals, views among leaders on Brexit remained mostly unmoved from where they were after the June 23 referendum — though with some new annoyance at May’s one-sided rhetorical grandstanding, particularly in her insistence that Britain would have access to the EU’s single market without allowing the free movement of European workers and travelers across its borders.
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“Let me be clear,” May said. “We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again.”
In France, where officials have suggested the sooner Britain leaves, the better, May’s declaration that she would invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty early next year seemed welcome news Monday — shifting the focus to more substantive issues rather than the question of when talks would start.
“They have a lot of work to do,” a senior French official said. “She’s narrowing down the scope, so everybody is focusing on substance instead of timetable.”
But the official added that May did not sound particularly realistic in her speech about potential concessions the U.K. would have to make. “Yes, we’ll have access to the single market but not the circulation of people,” the French official said. “That’s a way to not look at the real issues. Now that she has six months maximum, she has to look at the whole debate, what to propose, and that would mean to focus on realistic options.”
Lithuania’s foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius, reflected a view shared in many smaller EU countries, saying he hoped for an outcome that would keep the U.K. as close to the EU as possible. But he also underlined that Britain would have to make its own intentions clear and would need to show a willingness to compromise.
He said Lithuania did not believe Britain should be punished for its decision but nor should citizens of other EU countries see their rights or interests diminished.
“We definitely said we’re really sad about this decision and we’re still convinced it’s not good for Europe but also probably not good for the U.K.,” Linkevičius said in an interview in Brussels. “We have to make sure that negotiations will start and will end with a result which will be rational and good for both sides.”
Linkevičius said he was not sure how willing Britain was to negotiate. “They are talking about the single market, for instance, which is important for us but also important for the U.K.,” he said. “So definitely they have to take into account all these liberties that we are discussing and make a decision: Are they ready to have this deal or not? Are they ready to sacrifice free trade which is very difficult for their economy?”
He added, “First of all they should make it clear what they are going to do, how far they are going to go … that is not yet answered to my knowledge.”
In Prague, there were also raised eyebrows at some of May’s rhetoric, as well as an expectation that she and her negotiators would face up to reality sooner or later.
“Looks like the Brits still have not found a way to explain their promises were completely unrealistic,” said Tomas Prouza, the Czech Republic’s state secretary for European affairs. “But in the end, I doubt they will sacrifice their banking and financial sector that would lose their access to the European market.”
Manfred Weber, leader of the center-right European People’s Party bloc in the European Parliament, welcomed May’s relatively specific timeline. “It’s good that the British government is finally getting on with it,” he said, noting it could resolve Brexit before the 2019 European elections.
But Weber also slapped at May for being too vague. “On the question of how she imagines a new partnership between the EU and the U.K., Prime Minister May has once again left things completely open,” he said. “The British government has a lot on its plate. For now it is clear that the four fundamental freedoms are the DNA of the European Union. They are non-negotiable.”
Schinas, the European Commission spokesman, said Juncker would meet with May on the margins of an EU summit in Brussels later this month, but he emphasized that there would be no back-channel discussions on Brexit terms. Preparations for the negotiations, Schinas said, would be handled by the Commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who he said will soon hire a team of 10 to 20 people and begin traveling around Europe for consultations.
The French official noted that May and other British officials have indicated they do not necessarily want to replicate the arrangements the EU has with Norway or with Switzerland, but that logic suggested the final arrangement would be something similar. “It would be strange,” the French official said, “to have better relationships with Canada than the U.K.”
But more illustrative of the EU’s blasé reaction was a statement, mustered Sunday in a tweet by European Council President Donald Tusk: “PM May’s declaration brings welcome clarity on start of Brexit talks. Once Art. 50’s triggered, EU27 will engage to safeguard its interests.”
Nicholas Vinocur and Maïa de la Baume contributed to this article.