British relations with the EU have hit a new low after Theresa May launched a venomous attack on European politicians – accusing them of meddling in the UK’s general election and trying to wreck Brexit.
The Prime Minister spoke outside Downing Street to charge top EU figures with making threats, “deliberately” attempting to swing the 8 June vote and trying to torpedo negotiations.
The ferocity of the speech stunned Westminster and sent shockwaves all the way to Brussels where senior figures remained tight-lipped in the wake of the attack, while domestic rivals accused Ms May of irresponsible electioneering and mimicking Donald Trump in “winding up” scraps with foreign leaders.
Hours earlier the European Commission cemented a tough negotiating stance after new estimates emerged of the potential size of the UK’s “divorce bill” – putting it as high as €100bn (£84bn).
Ms May’s unusual intervention also comes amid fallout over leaked details of a meeting between her and Jean Claude Juncker, which led a German newspaper to report how the European Commission President thinks Ms May is “deluding herself” on Brexit.
The PM had just arrived back from Buckingham Palace to mark the dissolution of Parliament, when she emerged from No 10 to say: “In the last few days, we have seen just how tough these talks are likely to be.
“Britain’s negotiating position in Europe has been misrepresented in the continental press. The European Commission’s negotiating stance has hardened. Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials.
“All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election that will take place on 8 June.”
Ms May claimed that in contrast to the actions of European politicians, she had made clear in correspondence with Brussels that “Britain means no harm” and wants the EU project to be a success.
She went on: “But the events of the last few days have shown that – whatever our wishes, and however reasonable the positions of Europe’s other leaders – there are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed, who do not want Britain to prosper.
“So now more than ever we need to be led by a Prime Minister and a Government that is strong and stable.”
Labour leader Mr Corbyn said Ms May was “playing party games with Brexit” in the hope of winning an advantage for the Tories in the election.
He went on: “By winding up the public confrontation with Brussels, the Prime Minister wants to wrap the Conservative Party in the Union Jack and distract attention from her Government’s economic failure and run-down of our public services.
“But Brexit is too important to be used as a political game in this election.”
Lib Dem EU spokesperson Nick Clegg said: “Theresa May’s desperate, bizarre statement could have come word for word from Nigel Farage.
“The coalition of hard Brexit between the Conservatives and Ukip is now complete, and it will be hard-pressed families up and down the country who will suffer most.”
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon criticised Ms May’s speech, saying it had created a “poison atmosphere [sic]” and was “deeply irresponsible.”
While Labour’s Chuka Umunna, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign pushing for a softer Brexit, accused Ms May of “straightforward, crude electioneering”.
He added: “This is straight out of the Donald Trump playbook – not what we expect from a British Prime Minister.”
During the US election Mr Trump repeatedly picked fights with foreign leaders, including politicians in Mexico and Europe, while promising to put “America first”.
In her speech Ms May appeared to cite leaks to the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper which had revealed details of Mr Juncker’s views of last Wednesday’s Downing Street meeting, with the resulting stories giving Ms May’s rivals ammunition in the on-going election.
The paper claimed Mr Juncker dismissed her plan to reach a deal on citizens’ rights by June as failing to appreciate the complexity of the matter – he reportedly took out copies of the EU’s Canada trade deal and Croatia’s EU entry deal to demonstrate how difficult a deal would be.
Afterwards, he is said to have called German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to tell her that Ms May lives “in another galaxy” and is “deluding herself” over Brexit.
German Europe minister Michael Roth tweeted how the British Government should “say goodbye to the fairy tale” that things will get better for Britain after Brexit, while the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt mocked Ms May’s election campaign slogan, suggesting she lacked a “strong and stable” understanding of the complex issues around EU withdrawal.
There was a brief flash of the Prime Minister’s frustration over the leaks when she warned Mr Juncker on Tuesday how he would soon discover she is a “bloody difficult woman”, but her speech on the doorstep of No 10 bore her threat out as she ratcheted-up tensions with withdrawal talks yet to even begin.
This morning reports emerged that new estimates of the UK’s potential “divorce bill” put it at €100bn following an analysis of the latest French and German demands.
In Brussels, shortly before Ms May’s Downing Street speech, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier underlined that “there is no punishment, there is no Brexit bill”, but said the UK would have to commit to settle liabilities to stand any chance of a trade deal, along with agreeing a deal on citizens’ rights and external borders.
As he confirmed his negotiating directives, Mr Barnier said: “The UK must put a great deal of energy and effort into these three issues over the next weeks and months. That will increase the chances of reaching a deal.
“Some have created the illusion that Brexit would have no material impact on our lives or that negotiations can be concluded quickly and painlessly – this is not the case.”
He also signalled that Ms May could be forced to break her key Brexit election pledge to end the European Court of Justice’s influence, if she wants to secure the all import EU trade deal.
Mr Barnier said he wanted an “entente cordial” with the UK, but confirmed no trade talks can even begin until London accepts the Court would hold sway in Britain for years after Brexit, in particular to protect the rights of EU citizens still living here.
In colourful comments he said that during the “constructive” meeting at Downing Street, which he had also attended, he had discussed with Ms May their mutual love of mountain walking.
He went on: “If you like walking in the mountains you have to learn a number of rules. You have to learn to put one foot in front of the other, because sometimes you are on a steep and rocky path.
“You also have to look what accidents might befall you – falling rocks. You have to be very careful to keep your breath, you have to have stamina, because it could be a lengthy path and you have to keep looking at the summit.”