Theresa May has said Jean-Claude Juncker will be the next person to discover that she can be a “bloody difficult woman” as cabinet frustration with the EU over the early phases of the Brexit negotiations intensified.
The prime minister made the comments about the European commission president after extensive details of a dinner she held with him and key negotiator Michel Barnier were leaked to a German newspaper over the weekend.
May hit back over the issue during an election visit to the south-west. “During the Conservative party leadership campaign I was described by one of my colleagues as a bloody difficult woman,” she told the BBC. “And I said at the time the next person to find that out will be Jean-Claude Juncker.”
The prime minister said there was a lot of agreement between the UK and EU, but said the controversy over the leaks had proved that the upcoming negotiations would be “tough”.
Despite May trumpeting her “bloody difficult” credentials as a negotiator, the EU has long insisted that the talks would be run by the European commission acting on behalf of 27 member states.
In addition, while May reportedly told Juncker at the dinner that she would be the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, senior Brussels officials regard the prospect as completely unrealistic. The EU expects to hold intense week-long negotiating sessions in Brussels every month for the 15-month duration of the main Brexit negotiations – an impossible commitment for a sitting prime minister.
The account of last Wednesday’s meeting in Downing Street, laid out in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, lifted the lid on major tensions relating to both Britain’s “divorce bill” and the critical issue of securing citizens’ rights.
The prime minister was said to tell the group that Britain was not legally obliged to pay a penny, infuriating Juncker, who said he was “10 times more sceptical” about getting a deal done by the end of the session.
The commission president was said to have called the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, afterwards to say he believed May’s approach to the negotiations was from a “different galaxy”.
A cabinet source told the Guardian that they believed the decision to reveal the details of the dinner, which was also attended by the Brexit secretary, David Davis, was a “miscalculation” that would outrage British voters.
The insider, with knowledge of the meeting, said the view in government was that European officials felt able to throw their weight around because “they got away with it” previously during tough negotiations with Switzerland and Greece.
They also said they believed EU scepticism about achieving an early deal over citizens’ rights, for British people on the continent and Europeans in the UK, was driven by a desire not to let the UK have the “moral upper hand” over the issue. “We were willing to start talking about this in December,” they said.
The source also said there was evidence that European negotiators were gearing up to demand that any agreement securing the status of citizens would bind the UK to the European court of justice (ECJ) “in perpetuity”. That is despite the fact that May has made clear that removing Britain from the jurisdiction of the ECJ is a red line for her government.
Other Whitehall insiders said that ministers believed Martin Selmayr, the head of cabinet in Juncker’s team, had leaked the information, adding that many felt it was “probably with Berlin’s agreement”.
In further signs of increasing tension over Brexit talks:
- Britain will be told it must go before the ECJ to resolve disputes about its EU divorce, according to a document seen by the Guardian.
- The EU could up its demand from €60bn for a financial settlement before Brexit takes place, experts have said, with some reports suggesting that it could even reach €100bn.
- Political sources have told the Guardian that May was persuaded to break her promise over calling an early election by aides who warned her that things could get more difficult as Brexit negotiations got under way, although the prime minister’s team strongly deny the suggestion.
- Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has accused May of treating European leaders as if they were Home Office civil servants she can “bark instructions at” during negotiations.
The draft of the EU’s main negotiating text seen by the Guardian suggests that Barnier will spell out on Wednesday that the ECJ will be Brussels’ arbiter of choice to settle rows over money or EU citizens’ rights once Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019.
In his first press conference since EU leaders agreed a predictably tough opening stance in Brexit talks on Saturday, Barnier will stress his first priority is securing the rights of EU citizens and getting the UK to pay its Brexit bill.
The document restates the now familiar lines from EU leaders’ negotiating guidelines, notably stressing that Brussels wants an “orderly withdrawal” – meaning divorce before trade talks.
But the draft adds new details, most notably setting out the exact time of Britain’s EU departure: “at the latest 30 March 2019 at 00.00 (Brussels time)”. The UK will need the unanimous agreement of all 27 member states if it wants to extend talks, a tall order as many EU officials insist Britain must be out before the 2019 European elections.
The draft directives also spell out that the EU sees a continuing role for the EU’s highest court, when it comes to enforcing the divorce deal on money, EU citizens’ rights and any EU law that applies to the UK. “The jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union (and the supervisory role of the Commission) should be maintained.”
However, it does float the idea of an “alternative dispute settlement” for areas not related to EU law.
EU officials remain in the dark about who will negotiate for the British in the upcoming talks. “We have no idea,” one senior EU source told the Guardian. “It should be someone who has a lot of stamina, a mastery of detail and is ready to face Michel Barnier.”
Senior EU sources also stress the importance of Barnier being able to build a relationship of trust with his opposite number. Brussels is closely watching the outcome of the UK general election, which they expect will lead to the announcement of who will lead Britain in Brexit talks.
Meanwhile, Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform (CER) thinktank, revealed that commission officials are considering demanding billions more from the UK than was previously suggested.
“Commission officials have told me that the amount being sought by the EU from Britain before Brexit goes ahead is likely to be significantly higher than the €60bn that has already been floated,” said the CER director.
He said the amount was being inflated because of a desire to charge the UK for “political commitments to spend money that is not yet legally binding – such as aid for Turkey – and all the contributions they would have made in the remaining two years of the current budget cycle”.
However, the figures he was expecting were not as high as the €100bn reported on Tuesday night.
Grant said the leaking of the details of the dinner had “created tremendous loss of trust from the British”, meaning the government could no longer see the commission as a “serious negotiating partner”.
Anand Menon, director of thinktank the UK in a Changing Europe, said reports of the row could yet play well for May. “I think given the lack of comprehension of how complicated and fraught this process is, and given that public opinion is getting bored of the whole thing, and given that people will be reading reports of it in the British press, it will just look like Juncker is trying to bully Britain,” Menon said.
Officials involved in preparations for the talks have described the fallout as a “new phase in a phoney war”. However, they admitted there was tension over the rights of UK and EU citizens, with the EU wanting the ECJ to play a key role. “That won’t wash; they must know that,” said one source.
They also said that May’s government was being “disingenuous” if it claimed an early deal would be achievable.