BRUSSELS: A lions’ den or nest of doves? Theresa May’s first meeting with all the other European Union leaders since she became British prime minister was described by most merely as businesslike. It had been billed as an awkward encounter. Each side had at times characterized the other in less than diplomatic terms since Britain’s vote to leave the bloc in June – the Britons portrayed as intransigent, the EU as overly angry over Brexit.
But at the end of a Brussels summit dinner, May served up her approach to Britain’s departure from the EU while the other 27 leaders listened. The conversation may not have moved forward much, but there was a change of tone in the wider debate.
“She was actually very helpful. Quite a few times she came in with suggestions, on all the subjects. It was very positive,” said an EU official, describing her as more active in discussions on agenda items such as Russia and migration than her predecessor David Cameron had been at such meetings.
It was in keeping with May’s methods. British Conservative lawmakers who have known the former interior minister for years say she is “unflashy” and “businesslike,” adopting a no-nonsense approach that her aides hope will ease tensions with the EU.
At her closing news conference, May was clear that she would not allow the EU to make decisions without her. “We will continue to play our role, as I have done, sitting around the table. I can assure you that I haven’t been backward in coming forward on issues,” she said.
The tone had sharpened after EU leaders felt her speech to her party faithful at the Conservative conference this month suggested she was heading for a “hard Brexit,” a clean break with the EU’s single market of 500 million consumers so as to impose controls on immigration from the bloc.
Since this speech geared for domestic consumption, May and even some of her trio of senior pro-Brexit ministers have moved to ease concerns among not only EU leaders, but also businesses and investors that her government does not want to hurt the economy and instead hopes to win maximum access to the European market.
Her aides denied her message had changed but were keen to say May had told EU leaders that she did not want to damage the EU with Britain’s departure, and the country was determined to remain “a strong and engaged partner.”
“I think the PM is very clear ... on what we are approaching and that is the same message in the U.K. as it is in the EU,” a source in the prime minister’s office said.
“The principles which she has set out are the same: being clear that we want this to be a relationship that works for the U.K. and the EU once we’ve left,” the source said, adding that May’s message had not changed since she became leader in July.
But by sticking “to her speaking notes,” as one EU diplomat described it, some leaders felt the conversation had not moved on at a summit where entrenched positions on Russia and migration frustrated attempts to secure agreements on what some leaders say are more pressing issues.
After dinner, the only time when Brexit was discussed, other EU leaders repeated what May had said – a checklist that Britain would trigger for the formal divorce procedure, Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, by the end of March, and that she was taking time to prepare for the talks.
A senior EU diplomat said the 27 leaders were left “no wiser” by May’s briefing, and echoed comments from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande that the future negotiations are still largely a mystery.
May has at least survived her first such EU encounter. It may not have been the “nest of doves” European Council President Donald Tusk had promised earlier, but it did not, as he put it, see her entering a lions’ den.
“It’s a negotiation, there’s lots of things said,” said the source in May’s office, playing down the rhetoric of Hollande who warned her of a hard negotiation.
“It hasn’t started yet. The PM is approaching it in a constructive spirit with goodwill, as she has from the outset,” the source added.