Europe is waking up on May Day to the most devastating document published so far on Brexit. In what appears to be an almost verbatim account of the Downing Street dinner last Wednesday in which Theresa May and David Davis broke bread with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Sunday edition details the sheer astonishment of the EU negotiators at May’s position.
There is a semantic dispute on whether Brussels or Berlin planted the story but since there is zero difference between Angela Merkel (or Martin Schulz) and the Juncker-Tusk-Barnier troika, it hardly matters. London political journalists who deal daily in cynically planted leaks are hardly in a position to protest at German journalists happy to publish an account that is extremely damaging to the British Prime Minister.
The details, however, are a shock. May told Juncker that Britain did not have to pay any of the UK’s outstanding bills or liabilities. She insisted all negotiations should be kept secret and was surprised when Juncker said there would have to be reports to national parliaments. If the UK left the single market and the customs union Britain would have a lower status as a “third country” than Turkey, Juncker told the Prime Minister.
May was reminded that the EU is a legal construction, not a golf club, and she was told that given the length of time it took negotiating a deal with Canada or Croatia it would be years of talks to finalise an EU-UK trade agreement.
She said that the issue of EU citizens in the UK could be settled by June. It was pointed out that this involved health care, social security issues and these were national government competences. Moreover, the UK has no list of EU citizens in Britain.
She referred to the meaningless temporary opt-outs she negotiated from EU Justice and Home Affairs measures and suggested this could be a model for Brexit with the UK opting back in on a cherry-picking basis to bits of the single market she liked.
The EU team left Downing Street in a state of shock. Juncker placed a late-night call to Angela Merkel to convey his pessimism about the lack of knowledge or understanding in Downing Street about the Brexit policy of the EU27 governments – every bit as sovereign and accountable to their voters as May is in Britain.
The next day Merkel told the Bundestag that Britain suffered from “illusions” over Brexit which produced the predictable insults from anti-EU Tories and London’s mono-lingual journalists writing for the offshore press.
What is surprising is that anyone is surprised. The dominant centre-right confederation of EU conservative parties, the European People’s Party, published a full page advert in the current Politico setting out Brexit negotiating priorities. These include: “EU citizens will not pay the bill for the British. EU citizens will not accept British blockades. The right order of the negotiations has to be respected” and other demands.
In visits to seven EU capitals so far this year, I have heard all of these points from senior ministers and officials responsible for Brexit talks. In Berlin I was told that the German government has been asking London for months for a list of EU citizens in the UK. There has been no reply. In Warsaw I was told that Britain had to meet its financial obligations to the EU before any exit deal could be agreed. In Lisbon I was told that despite friendship with England going back to a 14th century treaty between the two countries, Lisbon now thought in terms of the EU27 and would stay loyal to its EU partners. In Paris, I was told that the frontier would move to British territory and that customs clearing centres would be set up in all French ports to control British lorries and car and that there was no question that the $120trn City money-making machine of trading and clearing euros could stay in a non-EU or EEA country.
In Dublin the deep fear is that if the UK leaves the customs’ union, there would have to be border crossing checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland with cars, vans and lorries checked for any goods that had not paid duty.
In one major EU capital, the chief Foreign Ministry Brexit negotiator told me: “We know the UK ambassador sends accurate reports of our Brexit policy to London but does anyone read them?”
All of these facts have been available to British journalists writing on Brexit for months. Nothing is new. But with one or two exceptions the entire UK coverage of Brexit is written entirely from an EU-UK point of view with the routine clichés thrown in of insulting Jean-Claude Juncker.
One cannot blame Theresa May and her mono-lingual No 10 team. Not since its 1930s coverage of Germany has the majority of the British media, including the BBC, been so poor in covering the main challenge to Britain’s future in half a century.
If British citizens, businesses, inward investors and even MPs are not told any of the core publicly available facts about the position all 27 EU sovereign governments are taking on Brexit then the final outcome may be far worse than anyone imagines.
Denis MacShane is the former Europe Minister and a Senior Adviser at Avisa Partners, Brussels.