The Prime Minister was told she faces an “arduous task” that appeared to be made more difficult after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was accused of likening EU leaders to Nazi guards.
There was cautious welcome from EU leaders for a speech given by the Prime Minister on Tuesday in which she accepted that the UK could not remain a full member of the European single market while imposing limits on EU migration and withdrawing from the European Court of Justice.
But Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker warned that talks would be “very, very, very difficult”, and European Council president Donald Tusk said there would be “no place for pick and choose tactics in our future negotiations”.
The prime minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat,who holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said any deal “necessarily needs to be inferior” to the terms the UK currently enjoys, and warned of an “arduous task” ahead. “Thinking it can be otherwise would indicate a detachment from reality,” Mr Muscat added in an address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Mr Tusk welcomed the fact Mrs May “finally understood and accepted” the EU’s insistence that the four freedoms underpinning the single market were “indivisible”.
Mr Juncker pledged to seek a “balanced solution”, and told journalists in Strasbourg: “We want a fair deal with Britain and a fair deal for Britain, but a fair deal means a fair deal for the European Union.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said EU member states would present a united front, saying: “The be-all and end-all is that Europe does not let itself be divided”.
European leaders were told not to take a vindictive stance on Brexit by Mr Johnson, who sparked controversy on a trade mission to India after a spokesman for French president François Hollande echoed comments made in Strasbourg and Berlin.
“If Monsieur Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anyone who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some World War Two movie, then I don’t think that’s the way forward,” Mr Johnson said.
Guy Verhofstadt, the MEP and former Belgian prime minister appointed as the European Parliament’s lead Brexit spokesman, said the Foreign Secretary’s comments were “deeply unhelpful” and urged Mrs May to condemn them.
But the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman dismissed the row as “hyped-up”, insisting Mr Johnson had been doing no more than using “theatrical” language.
“He was in no way suggesting that anyone was a Nazi,” she added.
The Élysée Palace did not respond last night, but the MP from Mr Hollande’s ruling socialist party who represents French citizens living in the UK said Mr Johnson should apologise.
Christophe Premat, who said many French residents no longer felt welcome and were making plans to leave the UK, told The Scotsman: “I know it’s difficult for a politician to apologise, but he should at least correct his comments.
“Right now, we have a strong responsibility – when you have these feelings of fear, speeches have an effect.”
Meanwhile, talks between the UK and Scottish governments on Brexit resume in London this morning, with the SNP administration claiming a majority of people support its demand that Scotland should be allowed to stay in the European single market.
A YouGov poll of 2,066 adults commissioned by the Scottish Government found that 51 per cent believe its proposals to remain in the single market should form part of UK Brexit negotiations, compared to 29 per cent who said the issue shouldn’t be raised in Brussels.
Scottish Government Brexit secretary Michael Russell said the SNP administration had “strong backing” for its case to remain in the single market, despite the Prime Minister ruling out any separate Brexit deal for Scotland.
“Theresa May’s confirmation of the hardest of hard Brexits will only drive more and more people across Scotland to the conclusion that being driven off an economic cliff edge is an act of gigantic self-harm which Scotland must be protected from,” Mr Russell said.