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Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker’s dinner leaked because no-one thinks Brexit will work

The row highlights just how likely "No deal" is.

By Stephen Bush

A damning account of Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker’s dinner last week in the German newspaper FAZ has made it into English, and it has caused consternation at Westminster.

The highlights, if that is the correct word:

  • David Davis caused an awkward silence when he attempted to use his victory over Theresa May’s Home Office at the European Court of Justice as an icebreaker.
  • Juncker became alarmed when he realised that Downing Street still believes that a trade deal can be achieved within the two year time frame of Article 50.
  • The PM believes that the Protocol 36 negotiations – when as Home Secretary, she opted out a raft of measures before picking out the ones she liked and opting in a la carte – are a model for the Brexit talks
  • At the close of the dinner Juncker said he was “10 times more sceptical” about the chances of a successful deal than he was before.

Also causing irritation at the Commission is Downing Street’s use of its veto to put the new budget on hold until after the election. The Commission understands that the election puts a limit on what the government can and cannot do, but is frustrated that May’s government wants to continue to discuss Brexit – surely a sensitive issue – while also inconveniencing the EU27.

Theresa May described the whole thing as “Brussels gossip” which is Westminster-speak for “you have got me bang to rights”. A similar account of the dinner appeared in the Sunday Times, albeit one with a slightly more favourable slant towards our PM.

Is Brexit doomed after all? Much of the reaction to the story here in the UK gives you a pretty good idea why we voted to Leave. A story that appeared in print and in German, translated into English only thanks to the efforts of a few have-a-go translators on Twitter and précised by the Economist‘s man in Berlin Jeremy Cliffe is analysed through the prism of the message that Juncker – or more likely his chief of staff, Martin Selmayr – is trying to send to Britain.

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But – if the fact that the article was written in German wasn’t enough of a clue – the real message that is being sent is to Germany. Don’t forget that Juncker, Selmayr and the rest of Juncker’s retinue are all, like Angela Merkel, members of the European People’s Party, the centre-right bloc which David Cameron took the Conservatives out, with damaging consequences for his influence at Brussels.

The leak is sending a message, but it’s to German voters: don’t blame Angie if the talks end in tears and Germans living and working in Britain see their rights go up in smoke. 

While the Brexit elite misreads the amount of influence that Germany has over the rest of the EU27, they are right to say that while Britain would, by some distance, be the member state other than Ireland who takes the biggest hit from a no-deal Brexit, Germany is next in the firing line.

What the FAZ story reveals is not that the British government isn’t prepared for the talks – we knew already that HMG had a 30-year deficit of expertise and personnel to tackle this type of negotiation. It’s not that a trade deal can’t be done within the two years – we already knew that even simple trade deals are complex affairs and the only ones done quickly are those in which a larger nation or bloc imposes its will and trading conditions on the smaller partner. This is possible but not politically survivable for May. 

It’s that our European partners have now realised that the possibility of the hardest of all Brexits is very much on the cards – and are getting their excuses in early. If a hard Brexit does follow, May could live to regret not saying much to British voters beyond “Brexit means Brexit”.

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