Bri­tish PM Theresa May seeks a quick break-up, but EU finds it im­pos­si­ble

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer, an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist, is the Lon­don bureau chief for ‘The New York Times’

NO one ex­pects ne­go­ti­a­tions over Bri­tain’s exit from the Euro­pean Union to go smoothly over the next two years. But a Ger­man news­pa­per’s ac­count of a din­ner last Wed­nes­day be­tween Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May and se­nior EU of­fi­cials sug­gests that round one, at least, was par­tic­u­larly dis­cor­dant.

On Sun­day, the Ger­man news­pa­per Frank­furter All­ge­meine Son­ntagszeitung ran an ar­ti­cle, clearly leaked by of­fi­cials in the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion, that de­scribed a con­sid­er­able gulf be­tween May, who called for a snap election on June 8, and JeanClaude Juncker, pres­i­dent of the com­mis­sion, as well as the bloc’s chief ne­go­tia­tor on Bri­tain’s exit, Michel Barnier.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ger­man news­pa­per and some from Bri­tain, like The Sun­day Times of Lon­don, Juncker came away be­liev­ing that May was not just in “a state of de­nial”, but in “a dif­fer­ent galaxy”, as he was said to have re­ported in an early morn­ing tele­phone call the next day to Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel of Ger­many.

The pa­per re­ported that May said at one point: “Let’s make Brexit a suc­cess”. Juncker was said to have replied, “Brexit can­not be a suc­cess”.

May was said to have called for work­ing on a trade deal si­mul­ta­ne­ously with talks on Bri­tain’s exit, ar­gu­ing that since Bri­tain is al­ready a mem­ber and merely wants to leave, a trade deal should be much eas­ier to com­plete.

Juncker some­what the­atri­cally dis­missed the idea, reach­ing into his bag and pulling out two big stacks of pa­per: Croa­tia’s EU en­try deal and Canada’s free-trade pact, all 2,250 pages of it.

The two sides also dif­fered on the ques­tion of how much Bri­tain will have to pay as part of the “divorce set­tle­ment”, with May re­port­edly say­ing it owes noth­ing be­cause there is no men­tion of such pay­ments in the Euro­pean Union’s found­ing treaties.

Juncker was said to have replied that with­out a pay­ment there would be no trade deal.

Merkel was con­cerned enough to is­sue a strong state­ment to the Bun­destag, the lower house of Par­lia­ment, on Thurs­day, say­ing that Bri­tain can work out a new re­la­tion­ship with the Euro­pean Union only after it leaves.

“I must say this clearly here be­cause I get the feel­ing that some peo­ple in Bri­tain still have il­lu­sions — that would be wasted time,” she warned.

She added: “We can only do an agree­ment on the fu­ture re­la­tion­ship with Bri­tain when all ques­tions about its exit have been cleared up sat­is­fac­to­rily,” while point­ing out that se­ri­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions could not start un­til after the Bri­tish elec­tions in June.

The re­ports on Sun­day were de­tailed enough — and one-sided enough — that of­fi­cials at 10 Down­ing Street is­sued an of­fi­cial state­ment on Monday, a hol­i­day in Bri­tain, re­ject­ing the Ger­man news­pa­per’s ver­sion.

“We do not recog­nise this ac­count,” the state­ment said. “As the prime min­is­ter and JeanClaude Juncker made clear, this was a con­struc­tive meet­ing ahead of the ne­go­ti­a­tions for­mally get­ting un­der­way.”

On Sun­day, on tele­vi­sion news talk shows, May ac­knowl­edged that the talks would be dif­fi­cult, but said to the BBC: “I’m not in a dif­fer­ent galaxy, but I think what this shows, and what some of the other com­ments we’ve seen com­ing from Euro­pean lead­ers shows, is that there are go­ing to be times when these ne­go­ti­a­tions are go­ing to be tough.”

She in­sisted that Bri­tain could se­cure a com­pre­hen­sive trade deal with the EU along­side the divorce ne­go­ti­a­tions and com­plete every­thing in two years, with an “im­ple­men­ta­tion pe­riod”.

Brus­sels of­fi­cials re­gard that as un­re­al­is­tic and point to the bloc’s Brexit ne­go­ti­at­ing guide­lines, which man­date that talks on a fu­ture re­la­tion­ship can be­gin only after “suf­fi­cient progress” has been made on three ma­jor is­sues: guar­an­tee­ing the rights of cit­i­zens of EU mem­ber states liv­ing in Bri­tain; set­tling the divorce bill; and safe­guard­ing the 1998 Good Fri­day Agree­ment.

May, who wants to re­solve speed­ily the post-exit sta­tus of mem­ber-state cit­i­zens in Bri­tain and Bri­tish cit­i­zens in the bloc, sug­gested the is­sue could be set­tled at a sum­mit meet­ing at the end of June. Juncker and his top of­fi­cials con­sid­ered the timetable un­work­able given what they con­sider the com­pli­ca­tions of pen­sions, le­gal rights and the right to health care.

The is­sue is es­pe­cially com­pli­cated be­cause May wants the exit to end the ju­ris­dic­tion in Bri­tain of the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice, but it is that court that set­tles le­gal dis­putes among mem­ber states.

Bri­tain also wants com­plete se­crecy for the ne­go­ti­a­tions, which Brus­sels be­lieves vi­o­lates the prin­ci­ple of trans­parency — and as the var­i­ous news­pa­per ac­counts prove, leaks will be nu­mer­ous in any case.

While the din­ner was about open­ing stances in the talks, the gaps re­port­edly made Juncker more skep­ti­cal that a deal could be done in two years, be­fore Bri­tain leaves the bloc, mak­ing a “hard Brexit” more likely.

“I leave Down­ing Street 10 times as skep­ti­cal as I was be­fore” about a deal, Juncker re­port­edly told May as he left the din­ner.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ger­man news­pa­per and some from Bri­tain, like ‘The Sun­day Times’ of Lon­don, Juncker came away be­liev­ing that May was not just in ‘a state of de­nial’, but in ‘a dif­fer­ent galaxy’, as he was said to have re­ported to Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel of



Bri­tain’s Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May greeting Euro­pean Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker out­side 10 Down­ing Street in Lon­don last month. Theresa May ac­knowl­edged on Tues­day that Brexit ‘will not be easy’, after EU of­fi­cials ac­cused Bri­tain of un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the com­plex­ity of the task ahead.

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