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EU gets tough: Bloc tells UK Brexit is lose-lose situation

Associated Press Associated Press 25/11/2016 By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press
FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 file photo, Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat arrives for the EU summit in Brussels. Joseph Muscat, whose country is about to assume presidency of the European Union for six months from Jan. 1, 2017, says Britain's exit from the bloc will see both sides lose out. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 file photo, Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat arrives for the EU summit in Brussels. Joseph Muscat, whose country is about to assume presidency of the European Union for six months from Jan. 1, 2017, says Britain's exit from the bloc will see both sides lose out. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File)

LONDON — Since Britain voted to leave the European Union, U.K. officials have had one message: Brexit means Brexit.

Now they have EU leaders' reply: And it's going to hurt.

The prime minister of Malta, whose country is about to assume the EU presidency, is the latest leader to dash Britain's hopes of an easy divorce, signaling that the 27 other nations will drive a hard bargain.

Joseph Muscat told the BBC that "there will not be a situation when the U.K. has a better deal than it has today."

"In the U.K. it's fair game to bash Brussels and then you don't need to be surprised that in Brussels they bash you back," Muscat said in an interview broadcast Friday. "So this is a bit of Catch-22. It won't be a case whether one side gains and the other side loses. We are all going to lose something."

Malta, a former British colony, is usually one of the U.K.'s strongest supporters in Europe. The island nation is due to hold the EU's rotating presidency for six months from Jan. 1 — a period that could coincide with the start of U.K. exit negotiations.

British Prime Minister Theresa May says she will trigger Article 50 of the EU's key treaty, beginning two years of exit talks, by March 31. She and her ministers have refused to set out in advance the type of deal Britain will seek, saying that would undermine their bargaining position.

In the meantime, EU leaders have grown increasingly firm in their insistence that Britain won't get an easy ride, and frustrated with U.K. vagueness about its plans.

Last week, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem — who heads the group of 19 countries who use the common euro currency — accused British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson of "saying things that are intellectually impossible, politically unavailable."

In particular, he referred to suggestions by Johnson and others that Britain might be able to stay in the EU's single market for goods and services while imposing limits on immigration from the bloc. Free movement of workers is a key EU principle, but many Britons who voted to leave the EU are insistent the U.K. take control of immigration.

Muscat dismissed the idea that Britain could have both single-market membership and movement restrictions.

"And I could in theory win the 100 meters Olympic race," he said. "It's just not happening."

Muscat's exasperated tone echoes the frustration voiced by other EU politicians.

U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis visited the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week to meet EU negotiators, and characterized the trip as a chance to get "to know each other and get to trust each other."

But Manfred Weber, the German caucus leader of the parliament's main conservative group, said he came out of the meeting thinking Britain had "no idea what Brexit really means."

Others have made similar claims. A report from accountancy firm Deloitte that was leaked last week claimed that splits within May's government have delayed development of a negotiating strategy with the EU. The government is divided between Brexit-backers like Johnson and others, including May and Treasury chief Philip Hammond, who campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU.

The uncertainty is raising the political temperature in Britain. Two former prime ministers, John Major and Tony Blair, have said there could be a new referendum on Britain's exit — comments that drew angry responses from pro-Brexit politicians.

"You can't claim democracy when you want it and reject it when you don't," said former Conservative Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith. "We had a vote, that vote now has to be acted on, that's all."

Muscat said he would not be surprised if Britain failed to meet its self-imposed March 31 deadline. It is challenging a court ruling that lawmakers in Parliament must get a vote before Article 50 is triggered. The case is due to be heard by the Supreme Court in December, with a judgment likely early next year.

Once talks do start, EU officials have suggested it could take two years just to negotiate the terms of Britain's withdrawal, with details of the new relationship hammered out during a transition period.

Muscat suggested a deal between Britain and the bloc could even be "scuttled at the very end of the process" by a veto in the European Parliament. A European Parliament election is scheduled for May 2019, meaning lawmakers could be voting on Brexit while facing pressure to please voters at home.

Whatever happens, Muscat predicted: "It will get complicated."

"Divorces are never easy," he said.

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