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‘Don’t bully us’, Britain takes new combative tone to Brexit talks

By Reuters - Oct 01,2018 - Last updated at Oct 01,2018

The ‘Leave Means Leave’ Brexit campaign Co-chair Richard Tice (centre) talks to anti-Brexit activists after he took part in a fringe event on the sidelines of the 2018 annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, central England, on Monday (AFP photo)

BIRMINGHAM, England — Britain cannot be bullied, Brexit Minister Dominic Raab said on Monday, sharpening the government’s criticism of the European Union for taunting Prime Minister Theresa May and souring difficult Brexit talks.

May’s ministers have come out one by one at their party’s annual conference in the city of Birmingham to warn the EU that they will embrace leaving without a deal if the bloc fails to show “respect” in the talks to end Britain’s membership.

Just six months before Britain is due to leave the EU in the country’s biggest shift in foreign and trade policy in more than 40 years, May faces growing criticism over her proposals not only in her governing party but also in Brussels.

Highlighting the depth of the divide, the Conservative Party conference was mostly viewed with indignation by EU figures on Monday after Britain’s foreign minister Jeremy Hunt compared the bloc to the Soviet Union.

Party unity is on British ministers’ minds, however, and they are encouraging the faithful to direct their anger at the EU rather than at their prime minister, who some eurosceptic Conservatives accuse of leading Britain towards a “Brexit in name only”.

Other ministers, such as finance minister Philip Hammond, have taken a softer tone, pointing out that leaving without a deal could hurt Britain’s economy, the world’s fifth largest.

But Raab said he had called on the EU to match the “ambition and pragmatism” Britain had put forward with May’s Chequers proposals, named after her country residence where an agreement with her ministers was hashed out in July.

“Unfortunately, that wasn’t on display in Salzburg,” he said, describing a summit last month in the Austrian city where EU leaders rejected parts of the Chequers plan.

“Our prime minister has been constructive and respectful. In return we heard jibes from senior leaders and we saw a starkly one-sided approach to negotiation.”

“What is unthinkable is that this government, or any British government, could be bullied by the threat of some kind of economic embargo, into signing a one-sided deal against our country’s interests,” Raab said.

Instead of the much-hoped-for staging post, the Salzburg summit has become a byword for a sharp deterioration in the atmosphere of the talks, when British government officials felt May was ambushed by the other EU leaders over Brexit.

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