The near contempt felt by European leaders at the British government’s management of the Brexit negotiations, and their concerns over the “unimpressive” and “surprising” behaviour of Boris Johnson and David Davis, have been revealed by a confidential report drawn up by the Irish government.
The leaked document, from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, is based on recent meetings with counterparts in European capitals and paints a damning picture of the diplomatic efforts of senior British politicians.
At a meeting between the Brexit secretary, David Davis, and the French ministers for defence and European affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Nathalie Loiseau, on 23 October, the British cabinet minister is said to have left his hosts confused by barely mentioning the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
“Despite having billed this in the media in advance,” the paper states, “as a meeting to ‘unblock’ French resistance, Davis hardly mentioned Brexit at all during the meeting, much to French surprise, focusing instead on foreign policy issues.”
A minister in the Czech government meanwhile told his Irish interlocutors that Boris Johnson had been “unimpressive” during a visit in September, but he expressed relief that the British foreign secretary had “avoided any gaffes”, according to the document, obtained by the Irish broadcaster RTE.
The Czech deputy minister for foreign affairs, Jakub Dürr, is said to have told officials that “he felt sorry for British ambassadors around the EU trying to communicate a coherent message when there is political confusion at home”.
In Latvia, senior government officials said UK ministers had made “a poor impression on their rounds of capitals and Latvia is pessimistic with regards to reaching an agreement in December”.
The officials added that “the biggest problem is the chaotic political situation in the UK government”.
The British judge in the European court of justice, Ian Forrester, is reported as having bemoaned “the quality of politicians in Westminster” during a meeting in Luxembourg with Irish diplomats.
Forrester told officials that he had “a fair amount of contact” with the British government on Brexit but that he was concerned by a lack of understanding of the process.
He is said to have wondered if the British public might view the UK’s exit from the bloc as “a great mistake” when they realised what it entailed.
Forrester is further said to have described British society as “very divided” and noted that it was “difficult to see any solutions to this in the current political context”.
The report adds of Forrester: “His hope was that it would gradually dawn on people what leaving actually entailed, that there might be a slow realisation that this was just a great mistake and the mood might swing back to remaining.”
The document, compiled from reports from Irish embassies across Europe between 6 and 10 November, comes ahead of a crucial few weeks for Theresa May, as she seeks to persuade the 27 EU member states to move talks on to trade and a future relationship.
May is due to meet the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, in the margins of a leaders’ summit in Brussels on Friday, where it is hoped the prime minister will offer more clarity on UK intentions with regard to the estimated €60bn financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the Northern Ireland border.
The president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who will have a crunch dinner with May on 4 December, said on Thursday that it would be seen in the next few days whether Brexit talks with Britain had made enough progress to enter a second phase of negotiations.
“We are in intense negotiation with the UK to end the first phase of the talks about topics such as citizen rights, the ‘Ireland problem’, the bill that will have to be paid,” Juncker told a news conference during an official visit to Switzerland.
“The worst is behind us, but there has not been sufficient progress for me to say that we can enter the second phase of the talks about our relationship in the future. We’ll see that within the next few days,” he said.
Asked about a report the UK could pay £45billion for its Brexit divorce, he said: “I’m not crazy enough to give an immediate answer to the question.”
The leaked confidential report from Dublin quotes senior EU figures as being alarmed by “chaos in the Conservative government”, and concerned that the cabinet is simply incapable of forming clear and coherent views on key issues.
The Guardian had reported on Wednesday how senior figures in the Spanish government were left surprised by claims from Davis last week that Spain was pushing for a trade deal. “It is amazing how the British misread us,” one senior source said. “Almost as if we speak a different language. They come to us, we say: ‘We will see what we can do.’ But it means nothing.”
The Irish document notes that Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, had appeared far from optimistic that a breakthrough would happen in time for the summit on 14 December.
At a meeting in Rome, the Italian minister for economic development, Carlo Calenda, told Irish officials that a no-deal scenario could cost Italian businesses €4.5bn.
According to the report, the Greek ambassador for EU affairs at the foreign ministry in Athens, Ioannis Metaxas, said he was “preoccupied with Brexit, which would cause ‘big problems’ for Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark”.
In reference to Ireland, the report says he was “keen to know what the solutions would be in terms of managing both migratory and customs flows between the north and south”.
The Irish government is pushing for the British government to devise an arrangement that in effect keeps Northern Ireland in the single market and customs union to avoid a hard border. On Wednesday, the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said: “There are other parts of the world whereby one country has difficult jurisdictions in terms of customs arrangements and trading arrangements. Hong Kong is an example of that … China lives with [and] functions with Hong Kong, which has very much been part of Chinese territories, but operating under a different set of rules.”
At a meeting in Japan in September, the report says, the deputy head of the Irish government, Frances Fitzgerald, “took every opportunity to make the case for Ireland as the ideal post-Brexit solution for Japanese companies considering investment or expansion in the EU”.
On 7 November, Irish embassy officials in Paris met Gaël Veyssiere, the head of cabinet of the French minister for European affairs, who wanted to know how Irish issues would be dealt with in the coming weeks during the negotiations.
The paper adds: “He was very negative about the possibility of this happening and about the level of engagement by the UK.”