Theresa May is fighting off accusations of a botched and humiliating start to the Brexit negotiations as claims emerged that the prime minister was told by the European commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, that there may not be any point in her even turning up to the first day of talks.
Speaking on the campaign trail in Lancashire, the prime minister sought to dismiss as “Brussels gossip” devastating accounts of a dinner with the EU chief, where it is claimed she was warned negotiations may not even get going unless she accepted that the bloc would not talk about a future trade deal until the British government came to an agreement on its estimated €60bn divorce bill and citizens rights.
According to multiple accounts of Wednesday night’s dinner, attended by May, Juncker and their negotiating teams, the prime minister’s insistence that talks about the future relationship should start early and that Britain did not owe any money to the EU under the current treaties were met with disbelief from her guests from Brussels.
“Jean-Claude Juncker’s answer was calm and sarcastic,” a source with first-hand information of the meal told the Guardian. “He turned to Michel Barnier [the EU’s chief negotiator], then to Ms May again, and said that contrary to his expectations the next 23 months might be extremely calm in terms of negotiation. He made clear there was no point in having even a first meeting unless the UK accepted the wording of the treaty and the political reality of a united EU27.”
According to a second account of the evening published by the German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Juncker’s last words to the prime minister as he left were: “I’m leaving Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before.”
Those close to Juncker are said to have subsequently concluded that the chances of Brexit talks failing were now “over 50%”. The next morning, Juncker reportedly called the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, claiming May was “on a different galaxy” prompting her to make a speech in the Bundestag suggesting London drop its “illusions” about the future.
The prime minister told reporters: “From what I have seen of this account, I think it is Brussels gossip. Just look at what the European commission themselves said immediately after the dinner took place, which was that the talks had been constructive.
“But it also shows that actually at times these negotiations are going to be tough. And in order to get the best deal for Britain we need to ensure that we’ve got that strong and stable leadership going into those negotiations.”
A key ally of the chancellor, the German MEP Elmar Brok, who was involved in drafting the EU’s opening negotiating guidelines, which were agreed at a summit on Saturday, said, however, that the success or failure of the talks due to start in June now depended on how May reacted to recent events.
“The EU wants to have a result and has carefully crafted the conditions for that,” he said, “but if you have a divorce you have to pay up on your obligations. It is like a husband running away from the family and their children.”
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, campaigning in Battersea, south London, claimed May’s negotiating strategy was unravelling.
He said: “Of course they are going to be difficult [negotiations], but you start from the basis that you want to reach an agreement, you start from the basis that you have quite a lot of shared interests and values.
“If you start from that basis and show respect, you are more likely to get a good deal. But if you start with a megaphone, calling people silly names, it is not a great start to anything.”
Writing in the Guardian, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said: “The most telling line attributed to Jean-Claude Juncker from last week’s meeting with the prime minister is that he ‘leaves Downing Street ten times as sceptical as I was before’. Unless we change tack quickly and adopt a more constructive approach, the weaker our negotiating hand will become.”
A spokesman for the British government said: “We do not recognise this account. As the PM and Jean-Claude Juncker made clear, this was a constructive meeting ahead of the negotiations formally getting under way.”
Martin Selmayr, the European commission president’s head of cabinet, who accompanied Juncker to Downing Street, also sought to down play the furore. He told the Guardian: “I understand that there is a lot of interest and speculation, but all the rumour and excitement it is not really grounded in reality.
“Things are much more down-to earth than many people apparently can imagine. But this is probably normal in campaign times.”
However, the detailed accounts of the dinner, along with comments made by Juncker at a summit in Brussels on Saturday where the EU agreed its negotiating guidelines, do suggest that the two sides are dangerously divided on key issues such as Britain’s divorce bill and the future rights of EU citizens.
May is said to have told Juncker the UK did not legally owe a penny to the EU under existing treaties over the dinner. She is also said to have told him the issue of citizens’ rights could be settled in the opening few weeks of formal negotiations, which are due to start in June after the UK general election.
May also reportedly suggested EU citizens would in future receive only the same rights in relation to living and working in the UK as anyone else who was not a British citizen.
Juncker responded that such a scenario would be problematic, because EU citizens currently enjoy additional rights. “I think you are underestimating this, Theresa,” he is reported as saying.
The commission has compiled a dossier on the rights it expects EU nationals living in the UK to keep and those it expects EU citizens to be able to acquire should they move to Britain.
In a pointed comment, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, 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.— Guy Verhofstadt (@GuyVerhofstadt) May 1, 2017
On Saturday, Juncker told reporters he was doubtful the UK would sign up swiftly to their dossier and suggested London had a simplistic take on the issue.
“I have the impression sometimes that our British friends, not all of them, do underestimate the technical difficulties we have to face,” he said, adding that May had told him in response to each of his questions about the future: “Be patient and ambitious.”
On Britain’s divorce bill, the EU delegation, which estimates Britain’s liabilities to be about €60bn (£51bn), are said to have told May over dinner that the UK had entered commitments with every passed budget and the bloc was not a golf club that could be easily joined or left. The EU, they said, was like a family, and Brexit should be treated as a divorce.
David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the EU, is said to have retorted that the rest of the EU could not do anything about the financial demands once the UK had left because it would no longer answer to the rulings of the European court of justice (ECJ).
Juncker pointed out that the UK wanted a trade deal, but without agreement on money there would be no desire among the 27 member states to make that happen. The whole exit process would change, the commission president is said to have responded.
“Let us make Brexit a success,” May is said to have beseeched the commission president. According to the German newspaper, Juncker said while he wanted an orderly exit, not chaos, after Britain withdraws from the EU in 2019, it would be a third country state for the EU, adding: “Brexit cannot be a success.”
It is also claimed that Juncker pulled out copies of Croatia’s accession treaty and the recently agreed Canadian free trade deal, which is more than 2,000 pages long, weighing 6kg (13lbs) in total, to point out the complexity of what was to come.
May is said to have been surprised by his response and defended her optimism with reference to her negotiations over Britain’s opt-outs from the justice and home affairs chapter in the Lisbon treaty, which was a symbolic hard break but kept all Britain’s old ties intact.
The article in the German newspaper also suggested that the EU delegation picked up on some irritation on the side of the prime minister at interventions from the Brexit secretary.
Davis is said to have made three separate references during the dinner to having successfully blocked May’s one-time plans for extra powers of surveillance for Britain’s security services via the ECJ. The newspaper claimed that May appeared unamused, leaving Juncker’s circle to discuss among themselves whether Davis would still be in charge of negotiations after the UK election.
As to the coming shape of the negotiations, May is said to have proposed that the two sides meet once a month for four days in Brussels, with positioning papers published beforehand. But she said the talks should take place in private.
“Everything should remain secret,” she is said to have demanded, to consternation from the EU side, which pointed out that the commission needed to keep the European parliament informed throughout the process.