By: Harriet Agnew in Paris
President Emmanuel Macron of France said the “the door remained open” to Britain’s staying in the EU as he met Theresa May, the UK prime minister, in Paris.
The meeting at the Elysée Palace on Tuesday evening was to step up co-operation between the two countries on fighting terrorism but the issue of Brexit dominated.
In a joint press conference, Mrs May gave no indication that she was willing to soften her position on leaving the union but said that “we want to maintain a close relationship and a close partnership with the EU and individual states into the future”.
She confirmed that the timetable for Brexit remained on track and discussions would start next week as she sought to demonstrate that she was continuing with business as usual, in spite of her precarious position as leader of a minority government.
She is facing cabinet pressure to pursue a “softer” business-friendly Brexit, which could include extending Britain’s participation in the customs union or taking a more relaxed approach to the role of the European Court of Justice in areas of UK-EU co-operation.
Mr Macron echoed the views of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, when he expressed hope that “Brexit negotiations will begin as soon as possible, in a co-ordinated manner at European level”.
But Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, had earlier in the day said the UK would be welcomed back to the EU if the British decided they no longer wanted to quit the bloc.
“The British government has said we will stay with the Brexit,” Mr Schäuble told Bloomberg. “We take the decision as a matter of respect. But if they wanted to change their decision, of course, they would find open doors.”
Responding to a question on that comment, Mr Macron said “the door remained open” to Britain’s staying in the EU but warned that “as the negotiations go on it will be more and more difficult to go backwards”.
He added that “it was a sovereign decision” taken by the British people to come out of the EU and said that “it’s not for me to say whether or not that this decision should be questioned”.
Mrs May had pulled up to the Elysée Palace in a Land Rover Discovery and the pair posed for a photograph outside before an hour-long working dinner to discuss measures to tackle terrorism and root out the extremism that fuels it.
The timing of the meeting — days after Mrs May’s electoral humiliation and amid Mr Macron’s growing momentum — only served to juxtapose their profoundly different electoral fortunes.
The 39-year-old French president appears on course for a crushing parliamentary majority in the second round of voting for the National Assembly on Sunday — a feat most analysts thought impossible.
Meanwhile Mrs May’s decision to call a snap election backfired and she swung from a 20-point lead to a position where she is fighting to stay in power by putting together a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party after failing to win a majority.
On Tuesday she defended her decision to seek a deal with the DUP, saying it would give “stability . . . in the national interest”.
The meeting comes less than two weeks after eight victims, including three French people, were killed in an attack in central London when terrorists used a van to plough into pedestrians on London Bridge before jumping out and embarking on a stabbing spree in nearby Borough Market.
That followed a spate of terrorist attacks over the past two years in Britain and France, including in London, Paris, Manchester and Nice.
The two countries pledged several counter-terrorism measures “to ensure that the internet cannot be used as a safe space for terrorists and criminals”, said Mrs May. Those include encouraging technology corporations to do more to remove harmful content from their networks, developing tools to identify and remove harmful material automatically, and exploring legal liability for companies who do not comply with these measures.
Mr Macron and Mrs May left the Elysée Palace to attend a football friendly at the Stade de France between England and France, where they laid a wreath at half-time. After the November 2015 Paris attacks the French and English teams paid tribute at the stadium, one of the sites of the attacks, to those who lost their lives.
Meanwhile, David Davis, the UK Brexit secretary, is expected to set out what his aides claim is “a generous offer” to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, a move intended to start talks in a positive spirit.
Although British officials admit differences remain with the EU stance on citizens’ rights, they believe there are grounds for an early agreement on the issue before talks turn to the more difficult issue of Britain’s “exit bill”.
Mrs May will travel to Brussels at the end of next week for a regular EU summit. Although Brexit is not expected to be on the agenda, the British prime minister is likely to face informal questions from colleagues on whether her stance on Britain’s EU exit has changed.
Additional reporting by George Parker in London
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