Theresa May has told eastern European countries that British people have sent a “very clear message” on the need to reduce migration through their vote to leave the EU.
She delivered the warning at press conferences with the Slovakian prime minister in Bratislava and then the Polish prime minister in Warsaw, as she continued her tour of European capitals to lay the foundations for leaving the European Union.
The EU has banned member states from negotiating over Brexit until the UK triggers article 50 of the Lisbon treaty starting the divorce process. But May has visited six European leaders in the last eight days, as No 10 tries to work out whether it is feasible to keep free trade with the rest of the EU while curbing free movement of people.
At the event in Bratislava, May spelled out that the UK’s deal with the EU will have to take into account voters’ views on immigration control.
However, Robert Fico, the Slovakian leader, said the “perception British voters have” of EU migration was “slightly different to how we perceive migration on the continent”.
May repeated that message in Warsaw, saying the voters had sent a “very clear message that they do not want free movement to continue as it has in the past”.
In response, Beata Szydło, the Polish prime minister, stressed that Poland sees the free movement of people as a key issue. “Any arrangement between the European Union and the United Kingdom in the future regarding freedom of movement is likely to be the most important part of the negotiations between both parties,” she said. “It will not be easy. But I think both for Britain and the EU it is very important that this issue – one of the four freedoms of the internal market – is saved.”
May also repeated her position that Polish and Slovakian workers in the UK will have their right to remain preserved only if UK citizens enjoy those same rights in Poland and Slovakia.
The prime minister said: “We value the contribution that Poles have made to the UK. While we are a member there will be no changes. It is important that we see the rights of British people in other EU countries as also being respected. We also want to get the right deal for goods and services.”
The Polish prime minister appeared to have accepted May’s overarching position that citizens’ rights should be reciprocal after Brexit. However, the reference was vague and neither leader specified whether they were referring to movement, residency or benefit access.
Szydło said: “It is for us to negotiate to ensure the rights of Polish citizens in the UK and those of UK citizens in the European Union be maintained.’’
At both events, May stressed that she is keen for the UK to have its own distinct relationship with the EU rather than an “off the shelf” model previously negotiated with other nations such as Norway or Switzerland.
“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 the 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.”
This indicates that she is hoping her new minister for Brexit, David Davis, will be able to strike a bespoke deal that manages a balance between controlling free movement and preserving free trade.
However, anything less than an end to free movement that sees EU citizens treated in the same way as citizens from the rest of the world is unlikely to satisfy the most hardline pro-Brexit MPs in the Conservative party and activists in Ukip.
The task of negotiating trade deals with the rest of the world has been given to Liam Fox, the new trade secretary, who has been in the US attempting to initiate talks. However, the US has said it is difficult to begin meaningful discussions until the UK is out of the EU.
Fox was also overruled by No 10 when he suggested the UK could leave the customs union, subsequently stressing that no decision had been taken.
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