BRATISLAVA/WARSAW (Reuters) - Britain wants a bespoke model for its future ties with the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Thursday, during a tour of Eastern European allies aimed at securing support in negotiations on leaving the bloc.
In the five weeks since Britons voted to quit the EU, politicians have tried to solve the riddle of how to restrict EU migrants’ freedom to live and work in Britain but still retain access to the EU’s single market for goods and services.
After meeting Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and Poland’s Beata Szydlo, May called for open minds.
“We should be driven by what is in the best interests of the UK and what is going to work for the European Union, not by the models that already exist,” she told a news conference in Bratislava.
“We need to find a solution that addresses the concerns of the British people about free movement while getting the best possible deal on trade in goods and services.”
The models proposed have included joining the European Economic Area or European Free Trade Association, forging a close partnership similar to those that Norway, Switzerland or Iceland have with the EU.
While that might please the EU, May would have to persuade Brexit voters to accept the EU budget contributions made by some of those countries, and the migrants they allow in.
Crucially, those models also lack the kind of access to the EU services market that Britain’s big financial sector is desperate to retain.
Seeking time to prepare a negotiating stance, May reaffirmed that Britain would not trigger the formal “Article 50” exit process before the end of 2016.
Slovakia holds the presidency of the EU Council, made up of leaders of all 28 member states, until the end of the year, giving it an important role in framing the EU’s response to Britain’s vote.
Fico said the EU seemed to be falling in love with itself and should use the time before Britain formally starts divorce proceedings to create a new vision of Europe.
While in Warsaw, May condemned abuse suffered since the referendum by Poles in Britain. She said she wanted to guarantee their right to stay, and would do so as long as she had reciprocal agreements from other EU members.
The roughly 800,000 resident Poles helped to stimulate an emotive debate over record immigration that boosted the campaign to quit the EU.
At a joint news conference with May, Szydlo said: “Our role in future talks will be to make sure we agree on terms that will provide the best conditions for Poles living in Britain, since a vast number of them want to stay there.”
Since coming to power last year, Szydlo’s government has made relations with Britain the focus of its foreign policy in the EU, in contrast to the previous, centrist cabinet’s emphasis on Germany.
Szydlo said she was satisfied that London would remain Poland’s strategic partner on issues such as Ukraine, security policy and migration.
Additional reporting by Michael Holden, Kylie MacLellan and Justyna Pawlak; writing by William James; Editing by Kevin Liffey