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U.K.’s Brexit Plans ‘Will Not Work,’ a Top E.U. Official Says

BRUSSELS — European leaders on Thursday toughened their stance against a British proposal on how to structure their future relationship, with the European Council president saying Prime Minister Theresa May’s controversial “Chequers” plan “will not work.”

Mrs. May has cast that plan for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union as the only workable one on the table.

But at an informal summit meeting in Salzburg, Austria, on Thursday, the council president, Donald Tusk, and fellow European leaders made clear that in their eyes, that proposal was dead.

If Mrs. May had hoped that the two-day Salzburg meeting would make her political life a little easier — her Conservative Party holds a conference at the end of September — it now appears it will have the reverse effect, and prompt more domestic criticism of her leadership.

“Something happened in the room in Salzburg,” said Mujtaba Rahman, chief European analyst for the Eurasia Group. “The French won the argument that the E.U. has to come out more firmly against Chequers, and we see that in the Tusk statement that Chequers ‘will not work.’ I didn’t expect that and I don’t think the prime minister’s office did, either.”

The so-called Chequers plan, which Mrs. May hammered out with her government in July at the cost of two Brexit-supporting cabinet ministers, calls for free trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland and a complicated technical fix to the customs issue, including the collection of European Union duties by British officials.

Rather than coming out of Salzburg more divided, as Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary suggested was happening, “Europe collectively has come stronger, and even tougher today than a day or so ago,” Mr. Rahman said.

Charles Grant, the director of the Center for European Reform, a research institution, said: “I don’t see any E.U. split right now, I really don’t. I’ve been looking for a pro-British lobby in the Council for six months now, and I can’t find one.”

Mr. Orban, who has been sharply criticized over Hungary’s violations of European standards of rule of law and democracy, created some attention for himself when he said on Wednesday that he and a group of other leaders were “getting a majority” for a deal with Britain.

“The other camp would like to deliver evidence that to make that kind of decision is to be punished and that the British must suffer,” he said. “I don’t like that approach at all.”

The contention was dismissed by analysts as self-serving and likely only to weaken the British position, because Mr. Orban is considered so controversial and distasteful by most of his colleagues.

It has been true for some time that France and Germany are the strongest voices for a firm stance toward Britain. They worry about any diminution in a Brexit deal of the “four freedoms” that are the basis for the European Union — including the single market for seamless trade and freedom of movement and labor.

But even countries that are basically sympathetic to Britain, like the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, have been firm supporters of the guidelines given to European Union’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.

Those guidelines include the need for a “backstop” in a British withdrawal deal to ensure customs and regulatory compliance between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, where no one wants to restore a physical border.

European Union leaders said that the Chequers plan offered a good basis for negotiations, but that the customs arrangements were unacceptable. Mrs. May has stuck by it, but on Thursday it was clear she had made little headway in persuading her peers.

President Emmanuel Macron of France was scathing.

“Brexit is the choice of the British people, pushed by those who predicted easy solutions,” he said.

“Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be all right, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home, are liars,” Mr. Macron said of the British politicians who campaigned for withdrawal. “It’s even more true since they left the day after so as not to have to deal with it.”

Mr. Macron called the Chequers plan “unacceptable, especially on the economic side, because it does not respect the integrity of the single market.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said the group was “united that, in the matter of the single market, there can be no compromises.” She said, “No one can belong to the single market if they are not part of the single market.”

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, one of the European leaders more sympathetic to Britain, described the Chequers proposal as “helpful but not sufficient.” He said he was seeking a deal with Britain that protects the interests of “the other 425 million people” who remain in the European Union.

“So we do not want to take decisions for the 65 million that will damage the 425 million,” Mr. Rutte said.

Asked about Mr. Orban’s comments, Mr. Rutte said: “There is no division; the unity of the 27 is holding and I’m confident we will maintain it.”

He added: “I’ve not seen these two camps at the table. I saw 27 countries all wanting to make the best of something we hate, which is Brexit. We all want the best for both sides, but it’s difficult with all the red lines that are part of the British debate.”

Mr. Rahman said that while the British wanted to rely on technology to avoid having a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the Europeans are very skeptical that technology was enough. “At some point,” he said, “there will have to be checks to ensure that the entire island stays in the E.U. customs territory and the E.U. regulations apply.”

“Even if you ‘dedramatize’ the checks,” he said, “they still have to happen.”

Mrs. May insists that no prime minister can accept a different customs regime, a kind of border, within the United Kingdom, even as a backstop.

As the pace of negotiations picks up, all sides are hoping to see most of the withdrawal agreement done by a European Union summit meeting scheduled for mid-October. But leaders were also told to block out a weekend in mid-November for an emergency meeting, if required.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: European Leaders Take Tough Stance on Brexit. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Source: NYT > World

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