LONDON – In public, Britain and the European Union say they want an amicable divorce. Behind the scenes, things are getting nasty.
Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged Tuesday that Brexit “will not be easy,” after EU officials accused the U.K. of failing to grasp the complexity of the task ahead.
In a comment aimed squarely at Britain, European Parliament Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted: “Any Brexit deal requires a strong & stable understanding of the complex issues involved. The clock is ticking – it’s time to get real.”
Verhofstadt chose his words carefully: “Strong and stable” is May’s campaign slogan as she seeks to win a bigger parliamentary majority in Britain’s June 8 election.
Formal Brexit negotiations won’t start until after the U.K. election next month. But already warm words from London and Brussels about partnership and friendship have given way to a steady drip of leaks, spin and barbed comments – evidence that the two sides’ expectations are poles apart.
Last week, May met European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for a working dinner, greeting him with a kiss at the door of 10 Downing St.
May’s office said afterward that the meeting had been constructive. Juncker called it “excellent,” though he noted: “I have the impression sometimes that our British friends … underestimate the technical difficulties we have to face.”
A far less diplomatic account was published by Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper. Its report on the meeting, credited to anonymous Commission sources, quoted Juncker as saying he left the dinner “10 times more skeptical than I was before” that negotiations will succeed.
Downing St. said it “does not recognize” the paper’s description of the meeting, and May dismissed the report as “Brussels gossip.”
But it drew a furious flurry of reaction from both sides of Britain’s EU divide. “May’s outrage at EU’s dirty tricks,” said the Euroskeptic tabloid Daily Express. “Brussels twists knife on Brexit,” was the front-page headline on London’s more pro-EU Evening Standard.
Whether the leak is accurate or exaggerated, it’s a sign the EU wants to let Britain know who is in the Brexit driving seat.
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“What makes the leak so powerful is that it confirms what a lot of people have been thinking,” said Fredrik Erixon, director of Brussels-based think-tank the European Centre for Political Economy.
He said that many in Brussels believe Britain has an unrealistic expectation that it can retain much of its current access to the EU’s single market once it leaves the bloc.
“The type of agreement many people in London think is possible is simply not going to be possible,” Erixon said.
He said British politicians “are telling a story about what they want to happen which may politically go down well in the U.K. but does not fit with the alternatives that are there.”
In a pointed show of unity, on Saturday, the 27 EU leaders adopted common negotiating principles for Brexit. They stressed that there will be no discussion of a future trade deal with Britain until major progress has been made on key issues, including the rights of EU citizens living in Britain (and Britons living elsewhere in the bloc), and the bill that Britain must pay to settle its commitments to the EU.
Britain has long insisted that talks on the divorce agreement and the future relationship can run side by side.
There’s an even more profound difference between Britain and the bloc about what a good Brexit deal will look like. May says she wants “make a success” of Brexit, and is asking British voters to back her Conservative Party at the ballot box on June 8 and strengthen Britain’s hand.
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“Across the table from us sit 27 European member states who are united in their determination to do a deal that works for them,” May wrote in Tuesday’s Western Morning News. “We need that same unity of purpose here at home to ensure we can get a deal that works in Britain’s national interest too.”
But it is in the EU’s interest for the deal to leave Britain worse off than it was before, to emphasize the strength of the EU and deter other countries from following the U.K. out the door.
“There is always a price, a cost, a consequence from quitting the Union,” French President Francois Hollande said after the EU leaders’ summit. He said Britain “must not be in a more favourable situation on the outside than they were on the inside.”