By James Crisp
(Euractiv) — British Prime Minister Theresa May today (21 October) insisted that EU leaders’ response to Moscow’s bombing of Aleppo was a success, as Russian warships passed through the English Channel on their way to Syria.
In another blow to British self-esteem, May was forced to field questions over reports that the European Commission chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier wanted the divorce talks to be held in French.
May didn’t rule out the possibility, telling reporters, “Negotiations will be conducted in a way that will get the right deal for the UK.”
At her debut European Council in Brussels, May had called for a robust and unified European response to Russia.
The UK, France and Germany secured condemning language against Russia, potentially paving the way for future sanctions, in the Council conclusions.
May was asked how seriously those words could be taken, given that today, under the watchful eye of the Royal Navy, the Russian ships were in the Channel.
She said, “I think we had a very good discussion in relation to Russia and its actions in Syria and the impact we are seeing in the indiscriminate bombing of citizens in Aleppo.
“We were very clear about Russia and the need for the EU to be very clear that all options were open.”
Embarrassingly, today is Trafalgar Day in the UK, which has historically prided itself on “ruling the waves”. The day marks the victory of Admiral Horatio Nelson over combined French and Spanish fleets in 1805.
It was earlier reported that Barnier, the French former Internal Market Commissioner, was keen that his native tongue be used in meetings and documents.
One seasoned Brussels-watcher opined, “In a duel, you always pick your weapons. Michel Barnier has picked French as his weapon.”
The British are infamous in Europe for their poor foreign language skills. While many British diplomats in Brussels speak French, their counterparts in London may not.
An EU spokeswoman said Barnier’s demand was not an official line. “There is no language regime for the negotiations,” she said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “If I’m correctly informed, everybody is allowed to speak their own language. Since Mr. Barnier is a French citizen, it’s normal to me that he speaks French, as I speak German.”
May told reporters, “The UK is leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe and we are not turning our backs on our allies. My aim is to cement Britain as a close partner of the EU once we have left.
“I am sure there will be difficult moments. It will require some give and take.”
May, who succeeded David Cameron after his post-referendum vote resignation, said that a constructive spirit could deliver a Brexit in the best interests of the UK and the EU.
Last night at 1AM, she addressed EU leaders for just five minutes on the question of Brexit.
According to European Council President Donald Tusk, there was no response from the other heads of state and government. This was in line with the policy of no negotiation without the notification of article 50, the legal process taking Britain out of the EU.
May had earlier said that the UK would not rubber-stamp plans made by the other member states meeting as the EU-27.
But the other EU nations will continue to meet as 27, and there was no suggestion they wouldn’t. They meet next in Malta in January.
“I have not been backwards in coming forwards,” May said.
“Of course the 27 will have to have discussions among themselves about how to approach the negotiations,” she added.
May dodged questions over British opposition to the Commission’s push to remove the Lesser Duty Rule, which caps the level of anti-dumping measures that the EU can impose. The tariffs are used to protect European industry.
Although the British steel industry is suffering greatly in the face of cheap Chinese imports, May said it was important to balance the needs of industry and the consumer in trade policy.
That could lead to a frosty meeting with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Juncker, whose father was a steelworker, had urged member states to back the tougher trade defence measures.
May met Juncker, who she described as her “lunch date”, immediately after the press conference for a getting-to-know-you session. The pair met just once before, on the margins of the G20.
She also said that the UK would continue to support EU Free Trade Agreements, such as the deadlocked CETA trade deal with Canada, even though it was leaving the bloc.
The Belgian regional government of Wallonia has wielded an effective veto over CETA. UK government sources have, according to reports, suggested that CETA could be a model for the future trading relations between the UK and EU.
“We are not looking to replicate a model that someone else has with the EU,” May said.