As dinners go, it was not the most harmonious. Theresa May welcomed Jean-Claude Juncker to Downing Street on 26 April in the hope of impressing upon him the need for Britain to secure a swift, cheap and mutually beneficial exit from the EU. But the European Commission president and his negotiating team departed unimpressed by the British government’s demands and its lack of understanding of the complexities of Brexit. “I’m leaving Downing Street ten times more sceptical than I was before,” the self-important Mr Juncker reportedly told Mrs May.
In a call to Angela Merkel after the dinner, he described the Prime Minister as living in “a different galaxy”. We know this because a detailed account of the evening appeared in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. The leak – dismissed as “gossip” by Downing Street – was a calculated political act, designed to instil a sense of reality in London. It was also one-sided. Yet the report was well sourced enough to expose the strain and distrust between the two negotiating teams, which were meeting for the first time, and serves to highlight just how far apart they are.
The sharp differences of opinion also demonstrate the foolishness of the hard Brexiteers’ utopian, libertarian vision of Britain as once more a “buccaneering, free-trading” global nation. Having spent years railing against Brussels as a ponderous, incompetent bureaucracy, they now expect the EU to act quickly and rationally to help the May government make Brexit a “success”, as the Prime Minister supposedly told Mr Juncker. Mrs May wants work on a trade deal to commence in confidence and at the same time as the negotiations on Britain’s departure. She believes that everything can be completed within two years, with an “implementation period”.
However, Mr Juncker and his team, which includes the bloc’s chief negotiator on Britain’s exit, Michel Barnier, insist that issues such as EU citizens’ rights and the UK’s estimated €60bn divorce bill must be resolved before then. Mr Juncker is said to have laughed off May’s suggestion that the reciprocal expatriate rights could be sorted out in June as naively optimistic. “No payment, no trade deal”, was his message.
That the EU is playing tough and dirty should be no surprise. It is a political entity and will act in its own political, as well as economic, interests, not in Britain’s. Furthermore, the bloc has been emboldened by the rejection of anti-EU parties in Austria, the Netherlands and, as seems likely, in France, where Emmanuel Macron is the favourite to defeat Marine Le Pen in the presidential run-off this weekend.
Often divided, the EU27 are united on Brexit, viewing Britain as a rival or “third country”, rather than a member. As Mrs Merkel said last week in the Bundestag, some politicians in Britain are still living under the “illusion” that the UK would retain its rights and privileges after Brexit. There should be no illusions now.
This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution