One of the EU’s most senior officials has called for a ceasefire in the verbal hostilities over Brexit with Theresa May, warning that looming talks could become “impossible” if calm is not restored.
The intervention by Donald Tusk, European Council president, marks a concerted effort to defuse escalating tension between Brussels and London after the UK prime minister accused EU officials of trying to sabotage her election campaign.
“These negotiations are difficult enough as they are. If we start arguing before they even begin they will become impossible,” Mr Tusk told reporters.
“We must keep in mind that in order to succeed we need today discretion, moderation, mutual respect and a maximum of goodwill.”
London is furious at an unflattering leaked account in the German press of fractious Downing Street dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker, chief of the European Commission.
After the Financial Times revealed Britain could face a €100bn bill to settle outstanding EU liabilities before Brexit, Mrs May accused “European politicians and officials” of threatening Britain and seeking trying to weaken the country’s hand in the talks.
Diplomats in Brussels were quick to conclude that she was deliberately stoking Brexit tensions to boost her own election prospects in June, but there was also concern that any failure to settle the row could undermine Brexit talks before they even begin.
The European Commission declined to comment on Mrs May’s attack, saying it was “too busy” to engage in a tit-for-tat row. “
We are not naive, we know that there is an election taking place in the UK and people get excited whenever we have elections,” said Margaritis Schinas, the commission’s chief spokesperson.
The commission has been widely blamed for the leak to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which suggested Mrs May was living “in another galaxy”.
In defiance of upbeat UK statements about the outlook for the Brexit negotiations, many Brussels diplomats believe the objective was to inject a sense of “realism” into British debate about the scale and complexity of the challenge to be overcome.
But some high-level European figures believe the leak merely opened the door for Mrs May to play the row for her own advantage. This was the “only sensible thing to do, but it might also harden the Brexit side” in the Conservative party, said a senior EU official.
There is growing concern in Germany, especially in business circles, that the exchanges between Brussels and London will make the looming talks more difficult.
Detlef Seif, parliamentary Brexit spokesman for chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc, blamed the FAZ leak on a “babbling idiot” but said London should stop promising “the impossible” from the talks.
“Neither the UK nor the EU is blameless in the fact that the atmosphere is becoming poisoned,” he told the FT. “Mrs May says that the UK can be in a better position if it leaves than it was as a member. I can’t see this. The EU will be worse off without Britain, and Britain will be much worse off.”
Dieter Kempf, president of Germany’s BDI industry body, called for reason and pragmatism from Brussels and London. “The Brexit negotiations will not be an easy ride. The aim now will be not to smash any more china in the talks.”
Mario Giro, Italy’s deputy foreign minister, dismissed Mrs May’s comments as election rhetoric and said blaming Brussels — or Berlin — was a classic political strategy often deployed in Italy. “We take them for what they are: interventions that are due to the electoral climate,” he said. “We know this game.”
Despite deep divisions between Brussels and London over the sequencing of the Brexit talks and the scale of UK’s divorce bill, diplomats expect the dispute to blow over.
“Obviously the British general election is an usual set of circumstances, where nothing would be surprising, but generally there is a sense that we have to let everything simmer down,” said a senior EU diplomat.
Another diplomatic figure said it was in the interests of all sides to calm the situation. “Any more antagonism would be counterproductive for both sides. I assume there is an assessment that there should not be any further moves to pour oil on the flames.”