Theresa May’s critics have attacked the British prime minister for having “no plan” over Brexit in the wake of a leaked account of a private dinner that heightened tensions between Brussels and London.
A report published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung portrayed last Wednesday’s dinner between Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker as a disaster.
According to the FAZ, commission officials were astonished at Mrs May’s ambitions for the talks, including rapid resolution of the status of expatriates, a confidential negotiating process and a trade deal within two years.
The article quotes Mr Juncker as saying that he left the dinner “10 times more sceptical than I was before”. He told Angela Merkel, German chancellor, of his concerns in an early morning phone call the next day.
Tim Farron, leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrats, said on Monday that the report made clear that “this government has no plan and no clue” for leaving the EU.
Keir Starmer, the Brexit spokesman for the opposition Labour party, said Mrs May had misjudged her hand. “By refusing to acknowledge the complexity and magnitude of the task ahead the Prime Minister increases the risk that there will be no deal, which is the worst of all possible outcomes,” he said.
A UK government spokesman said the FAZ account was not recognisable: “As the PM and Jean-Claude Juncker made clear, this was a constructive meeting ahead of the negotiations getting formally under way.”
But the comprehensive leaking of the talks will strengthen the hand of Eurosceptics in Mrs May’s own party who believe the Brexit negotiations cannot succeed and that Britain would be better to make a clean break with the EU.
“This is the reason why some people are saying it will be impossible to reach a deal, because it doesn’t matter which party is in the wrong galaxy, if they are in separate galaxies it is going to be very difficult,” said Bernard Jenkin, a leading Conservative Eurosceptic MP.
A spokesman for the UK Independence party added that the account of the EU’s attempt to “bully” the UK showed the “mutual incomprehension” between the two sides. “We believe no deal is better than a bad deal, the offers on the table are bad deals and so better that we go for a quick, clean break and get on with our lives,” he said.
The leak has also laid bare the obstacles facing Mrs May’s ambition to hold the negotiations in secret: Mr Juncker has a duty to keep 27 member states informed of progress and details are bound to leak.
While the UK prime minister used the dinner to push for an early deal to secure the rights of British workers across the continent, according to the FAZ, Mr Juncker said this would involve very complex negotiations on topics such as health insurance.
Mr Juncker and Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator who was also present, were astounded by the prime minister’s assertion that the UK did not have to pay “a penny” of a Brexit divorce bill, which the EU has estimated as up to €60bn, because there was nothing in the treaty to say that it had to. Mr Juncker responded that without a financial settlement there would be no UK-EU trade deal.
He also said, according to the FAZ: “Brexit cannot be a success.”
However Mrs May’s comments over dinner in Downing Street should also be viewed as an opening shot in Brexit negotiations, made with the almost certain knowledge that her views would become public at some point.
The prime minister’s view that a trade deal can be wrapped up by late 2018 may be viewed in Berlin as “an illusion”, but it is also an attempt to force the pace of talks.
Privately many of Mrs May’s ministers agree that the best Britain can hope for is a broad outline of a future trade agreement, with details to be filled in over a transition period lasting several years.
In a show of unity a weekend summit, the other EU27 member states agreed a tough opening stance on the talks.