The Czech Republic’s EU minister Tomas Prouza has accused Theresa May of lying about freedom of movement as well as failing to provide clarity on Britain’s Brexit position.
Prouza warned that May's use of "alternative facts" around the subject of immigration could jeopardise negotiations and future UK–EU relations, and invited Britain to build a new relationship based "on facts and respect, not populism and lies”.
The Czech state secretary for European affairs made the remarks during a speech he was giving at Charles University in the Czech Republic. An English version of the speech was later posted on his website. He also lamented that London wasn't clearly setting out the kind of relationship the UK wants to have with the EU.
“We are a bit confused – the main idea of a fairer, more open, and more global Britain seems nice on paper, but how do you want to be open when one of the key elements of the plan is to stop the inflow of bright and hardworking people from all over the world that invested so much of their energy into making Britain great?"
Prouza went on: "How do you want to 'reach beyond Europe' when your plan is to close yourself up and when you are best friends with a man who is basing his new administration on cutting his international ties?"
Referring to the prime minister’s recent speech where she set out her 12-point Brexit plan, the Czech minister added: “Once more, Theresa May mentioned the abuse of ... freedom of movement as the reason for this plan.
"A quick fact check – studies have repeatedly shown this is not the case. Yet here we are. Still wasting our time explaining these alternative facts but these claims [are] still a part of the ‘reasoning’."
Prouza also said “there was very little information for us [in May's speech] listening across the Channel.”
He suggested the UK had simply gone from “Brexit means Brexit” to “Brexit means hard Brexit” to "Theresa May’s speech means Theresa May’s speech".
At the time she made it, May's speech received mixed reactions elsewhere in Europe. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, tweeted: "Sad process, surrealistic times but at least more realistic announcement on Brexit."
Officials from other governments BuzzFeed News spoke to at the time said they welcomed the clarity, though most also said they weren't surprised by the direction May was setting. Privately, officials from a number of EU governments have expressed similar views about the British government's tone on immigration, its approach to the EU, and the upcoming negotiations.
And a white paper released by the UK government last week appears to have added little clarity. It was described by the Czech minister as a “nicely written 70 pages with very little tangible details and aimed at the domestic audience”.
Later in his speech Prouza voiced his hopes for a cordial breakup and a close, forward-looking relationship with Britain. Before returning to how immigration is discussed and perceived in the UK, Prouza cited the breakup of Czechoslovakia as an example of a clean divorce.
“I believe we should strive for the similar effect here. Our legacy for future generations cannot be a world where the clock turned back a century and everybody is an enemy.
"However, we cannot achieve this if we continue to make unfounded claims about each other. I am speaking about the continuing and growing aggression towards other nationals, especially citizens from central Europe, in the UK… time and time again, numbers have shown that EU citizens contribute more to Britain’s economy than they take out," he added.
"Even so, this alternative fact – or let’s call it what it is, a lie – once again resurfaced in Theresa May’s speech. Let’s move beyond such tactics and build our new relationship on facts and respect, not populism and lies,” Prouza said.
On future UK–EU relations, echoing a view that is shared in a number of other European capitals, Prouza said his government would have liked to see the UK’s continued participation in the single market with all four freedoms – of movement of goods, services, people, and capital – applied but, he said, he realised this was not going to happen.
“Basically, take Theresa May’s speech, go step by step, and whatever she says, we would prefer it differently, making sure Europe and the UK remain closely connected,” the minister told the audience.
Still, Prouza welcomed the fact that there was a lot the EU and the UK could still agree on, including common defence projects, defending common values, the importance of NATO, and working together to fight terrorism, organized crime, and cyber threats. He also said he hoped the UK and the EU could continue to cooperate on research.
On the upcoming negotiations between the UK and the EU’s other 27 member states, the Czech minister warned that there were "good" and "bad" ways of doing a hard Brexit. “The rhetoric that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ is certainly the latter,” he said. He added: “The UK sometimes seems to be forgetting that it needs us too. Yes, UK is a big business partner for the EU, but so is the EU for the UK. This splendid isolation game regardless of the real consequences is dangerous.”
As other EU member states have done consistently since last June’s referendum, Prouza ruled out the possibility that Britain would be allowed to "cherry-pick" the bits of the EU it likes while ignoring the responsibilities. "There must be some give for all the UK’s take," he said.
Setting out his government's own stall, the minister said the Czech Republic's focus in the negotiations would be on "people and money. On citizens’ rights and financial settlement," an early indication that discussions about Britain's "Brexit bill" (some analysis suggests it will amount to €60 billion) will be one of the main sticking points during the talks.
The EU's remaining 27 member states have been clear that keeping the EU together will be their priority during the negotiations. This was a point the Czech minister reaffirmed during his speech on Thursday: “The EU cannot undermine the very principles on which the internal market was established and has to ensure a level playing field.
"The possibility of cherry-picking is the biggest danger that would devalue the existing efforts of all member states,” he warned.
Though acknowledging that negotiations would not be easy, Prouza stressed that the EU's position was not about punishing the UK or the British electorate for their vote.
He concluded his speech by saying: “Let me remind you that during World War II, the Czech government in exile had its base in London; similarly, Czech pilots played a role in the success of the Royal Air Force. We must not forget these key historic moments, we must remember the heroism of our ancestors and continue to work together.
"All the same time, the Czech Republic is a member of the European Union and will continue to defend its principles and unity of the integration. We still believe moving forward together is the best available and most efficient option for us. As was once said, no man is an island… except for Britain, of course.”
BuzzFeed News reached out to Downing Street for a comment. At time of publication, they had yet to reply.