EU's Tusk warns against Brexit deal 'threats'

Alex PIGMAN with Danny KEMP in Brussels and Alice RITCHIE in London
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Britain voted in 2016 to end its four-decades-old membership of the 28-country European Union

The European Union will not bow to British "threats" that it is prepared to walk away from Brexit talks without a deal, the bloc's president, Donald Tusk, said Wednesday.

Tusk said Britain would come off worse than the 27 other EU members if the two-year negotiation process ended without an agreement on the terms of its departure.

"We will not be intimidated by threats and I can assure you they simply will not work," Tusk told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

"The claims, increasingly taking the form of threats, that no agreement will be good for the UK and bad for the EU, need to be addressed," Tusk said.

"I want to be clear that a no-deal scenario would be bad for everyone but above all for the UK."

British Prime Minister Theresa May said in January that she was ready to leave the EU without a deal on future relations if necessary.

"While I am sure a positive agreement can be reached -– I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain," she said in a speech.

The UK Brexit minister David Davis tried to play down the row on Wednesday, telling a parliamentary committee in London that despite some "sharp" remarks, the EU president had emphasised that Britain was a friend.

"We're not trying to threaten anybody, we're not trying to do anything heavy-handed, we're not trying to be coercive," Davis said.

"We're trying to ensure that we get something that is in the interests of everybody."

Brussels is increasingly on edge as it waits for May to formally trigger the two-year Brexit process, which she has promised to do by the end of March.

The EU says it wants to sort out Britain's bill for leaving, the rights of EU citizens and the border in Northern Ireland, before moving on to talks about a future trade deal.

- 'Door always open' -

But Tusk, a former Polish premier who was re-elected European Council president last week despite the objections of his home country, said he would work to ensure that Britain and the EU remained "close partners".

"The EU's door will always remain open to our UK friends," he told MEPs.

Tusk, whose job involves working to achieve consensus among the bloc's national leaders, added that he remained optimistic that Britain would be sensible.

"Our goal is to have a smooth divorce and a good framework for the future. And it is good to know that Prime Minister Theresa May shares this view," he said.

May's government has promised the British parliament a binding vote on the Brexit deal before Britain leaves in early 2019 -- but only after May has accepted it.

If she decides not to accept it, there is no deal to vote on.

Many MPs fear that May will be pressured by the eurosceptic press and the right wing of her Conservative party into rejecting a deal, with potentially disastrous economic consequences.

But Downing Street fears the EU could give Britain a worse deal if it believes lawmakers might accept it as an alternative to crashing out.

Davis acknowledged Wednesday that the British government had still not made any assessment of the economic impact of leaving without a deal.

"I can't quantify it for you yet. I may well be able to do so in a year's time. It's not as frightening as some people think, but it's not as simple as some people think," he told MPs.

The remaining 27 EU leaders will discuss their post-Brexit future at a summit in Rome on March 25 to mark the 60th anniversary of the bloc's founding treaty.

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