April 18, 2017 / 5:46 PM / 4 months ago

EU welcomes May's 'Hitchcock' twist, still expects Brexit

Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, leaves after meeting Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May inside 10 Downing Street, in central London, Britain April 6, 2017.Hannah McKay

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union welcomed a snap British election that one of its leaders likened to a Hitchcock plot twist, but there was conspicuously little talk in Brussels of the vote halting Britain's exit from the bloc.

Instead, EU officials echoed Prime Minister Theresa May's hopes that a parliamentary poll on June 8 could strengthen her own hand in managing the Brexit negotiations which are due to start around the same time.

"We have some hope that this will lead to a strong leader in London that can negotiate with us with strong backing by the electorate," an EU official said after Tuesday's surprise move.

EU negotiators have been concerned that division over Brexit among voters -- and within May's own party -- could make it harder to agree terms before March 2019 to ensure an orderly British withdrawal. A collapse in talks would risk Britain simply crashing out of the Union when that deadline expires, leaving legal chaos.

After her predecessor narrowly lost a referendum gamble to keep Europe's second-ranked economy in the EU, Brussels once harboured hopes that Britain might have a change of heart under fellow Conservative May, who had favoured 'Remain' over Brexit.

However, her decision to quit the EU's barrier-free single market, confirmed when she launched the two-year Brexit countdown last month, saw that give way to a determination to close ranks across the bloc and drive a hard bargain with London to discourage imitators. Few would relish the disruption a British about-face would now cause.

European Council President Donald Tusk spoke to May and quoted British master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock's recipe for a good movie in likening her dramatic move to a thriller plot: "It was Hitchcock who directed Brexit: first an earthquake and the tension rises," the former Polish premier tweeted.

But Tusk's spokesman said the EU would stick to its own plans, which should see negotiations starting in June after Tusk chairs a summit of the 27 other EU national leaders on April 29. "The UK elections do not change our EU27 plans," he said.

"NO EXIT FROM BREXIT"

Opinion polls show May easily winning a majority.

"Hopes for an exit from Brexit are completely unfounded," Norbert Roettgen, a leading parliamentary ally of centre-right Chancellor Angela Merkel, told German media.

For Merkel's centre-left coalition partners, who hope to unseat her in a vote in September, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said he hoped the election would "lead to more clarity and accountability in the negotiations."

One of Gabriel's German party colleagues in the EU parliament, Jo Leinen, urged Britons to halt the process in a "de facto second Brexit referendum". Despite May's insistence that it cannot be reversed, he said no EU government would block such a U-turn.

"The British people can still avoid Brexit," Leinen said.

But the official line of the EU legislature's centre-left bloc made clear that its goal remained only "a fair Brexit".

Parliament's point man on the Brexit negotiations, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, also avoided suggesting the election could now keep Britain in the EU.

Though he leads a bloc which includes the Liberal Democrats, the main British party still campaigning against Brexit, he said only that the election would give voters a chance to influence the future relationship between Britain and the EU.

Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Francesco Guarascio, Tom Koerkemeier, Robin Emmott and Farah Salhi in Brussels; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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