EU puts pressure on new British Prime Minister to initiate Brexit talks

EU reaction to Theresa May's appointment centres on when she is likely to trigger contentious Article 50 countdown process.

Theresa May | Photo credit: Press Association

Theresa May, Britain’s new prime minister, has been urged to “promptly trigger” the start of divorce negotiations between the EU and UK.

The transfer of power on Wednesday from David Cameron to May sparked swift reaction from Brussels-based EU policymakers with the Socialist group leader in the European Parliament, Gianni Pittella saying Cameron would “not be missed.”

Cameron who called the EU referendum which will now see the UK leave the EU decided to stand down after the Leave camp narrowly won the landmark vote on 23 June, triggering a change of leadership in the UK government.

Pittella said, “The UK finally has a new Prime minister. Goodbye Cameron, nobody will miss you.”


One of new prime minister May’s first tasks was to appoint Boris Johnson, who led the successful Leave campaign, as the country's new foreign minister, an appointment which immediately invited scorn in some quarters, with former prime minister of Sweden, Carl Bildt, tweeting that he wishes the appointment “were a joke.”

Pittella was event more scathing, calling Johnson a “coward” and a “disgrace.” He also called on May to “promptly trigger” the much-discussed article 50 exit mechanism in order to begin creating a “new relationship with the EU.”

He added, “It must be clear that no negotiations will begin before this is done. The new UK Prime minister needs to make clear to her own party, and to many leave voters, that a lot of what was promised in the referendum campaign is neither feasible nor desirable. If you want to have full access to the single market then you will have to accept the principle of free movement and will have to follow the rules that govern it.

“Theresa May must also show greater responsibility than many of those on the Leave side of the debate. The cowardice that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have shown following the referendum is a disgrace. They have shown once again that populists are only interested in dividing and destroying and have no interest in putting forward credible solutions or being part of a responsible government.”

British conservative MEP Vicky Ford, who currently chairs the European Parliament's internal market committee and who campaigned to remain in the EU, had a less provocative response, saying “Theresa May will give the UK strong leadership and stability at this vital time."

Ford  added, "have worked with Theresa May’s team to introduce the cross-border criminal records checks which are now delivering real results in crime-prevention in the East of England. I have seen first-hand how she goes the extra mile to help Conservative candidates in our most challenging seats.

“Theresa May has the experience and the credibility to lead our country at this critical juncture. She has put together a deep and experienced team from all sides of the party. “She has a reputation across the country and overseas for being a calm and wise leader at difficult times.”

However, in contrast to Pittella, Glenis Willmott, who leads the British Labour party's 20 MEPs in the European Parliament, was more watchful saying, “The new prime minister urgently needs to reassure the public that she will protect our existing rights and not trade them away to appease her backbenchers in a headlong dash to trigger Article 50 and leave the EU."

Willmott called for assurances on workers’ rights, on consumer rights, and on national security, saying, "We need her [Theresa May] to reassure EU citizens living in the UK and British nationals living in Europe, that their rights will be protected. And crucially, she needs to give assurances on our continued access to the single market, upon which millions of jobs and billions of pounds of investment depend.

“Theresa May needs to demonstrate she understands the severity of the situation we are in, and to learn the lessons of David Cameron’s failures by engaging early with European leaders, making alliances, rebuilding the bridges he burnt, and not being beholden to the hard core Tory Eurosceptics for whom no deal would ever be acceptable.”

Meanwhile Eurosceptic UKIP MEP Margot Parker voiced concerns that the new British prime minister - who remained loyal to David Cameron during the referendum campaign by backing the Remain camp - was already looking to renege on the Leave campaign's expectations.

Parker said, "Theresa May has consistently said that Brexit means Brexit; but what does Brexit mean to her? We have already seen backtracking on the issue of freedom of movement and this is simply unacceptable. Over 17 million people voted leave with the expectation to reintroduce controlled immigration, by failing to deliver this she will have wilfully ignored the will of the British people."

May, however is said to be more in favour of establishing exit ground rules through a series of pre-negotiation discussions with EU officials which would lead to the triggering of Article 50 towards the end of the year.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker took time out of a diplomatic trip to China to reassure May that the UK will face no “hate” or “revenge” during the upcoming Brexit talks.

Referencing recent comments May made about herself as a negotiator, Juncker, in a much more conciliatory tone than he's used since the Brexit result, said he was looking forward to negotiating with a “difficult woman”.

“I want our relations with Britain to be as close as possible”. “I will not negotiate with Britain in a hostile mood. We have been partners in the EU for 40 years. We are allied countries, most of us in the North Atlantic Alliance.”

A letter to May from European council president Donald Tusk simply read, “I congratulate you on your appointment as Prime Minister. I look forward to a fruitful working relationship and to welcoming you to the European Council.”

Read the most recent articles written by Brian Johnson and Martin Banks - British humour has no borders: EU reacts to surprise choice of Boris Johnson as UK foreign minister