Wednesday, 03 May, 2017
PM vows to be ‘bloody difficult woman’
Theresa May will be barred from negotiating the terms of Brexit with her fellow European Union leaders, senior figures in Brussels have warned.
In a sign of an increasingly hardline approach, the prime minister will be prevented from joining discussions at future EU heads of state meetings, she has been told. The only person with whom she can sit down for talks is the European Commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
The EU leaders’ position contradicts Mrs May’s insistence during a campaign speech last week that she would personally negotiate Brexit with the “prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of Europe”.
Yesterday she went further in pressing home her plan to play a role in negotiations, pledging to be a “bloody difficult woman”. It was an echo of Ken Clarke’s grudging, off-air compliment about Mrs May in July. She told the BBC yesterday: “There’s only going to be one of two people sitting around that table. The 27 other EU countries on one side of the table and who is going to be there standing up for the UK? It’s going to be me or Jeremy Corbyn.”
The issue of who will represent Britain is understood to have been raised last week when the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Mr Barnier met Mrs May at a fractious dinner in Downing Street.
An EU source told The Times that during the meeting Mrs May suggested she intended to take the lead in the final stage of negotiations. “Juncker told her it is not going to work like that,” the insider said. “It is not going to be a negotiation around a table between heads of state and government. It was very awkward. We thought David [Davis, the Brexit secretary] was in charge.”
A commission spokesman confirmed that, under the EU’s negotiating mandate, talks would be run entirely by Mr Barnier with no discussion at meetings of the 27 leaders and Britain.
Asked if there would be any direct negotiation between Mrs May and the other member states on the divorce settlement, the spokesman said: “No. The commission is the union negotiator and Michel Barnier is the person who will negotiate on behalf of the EU. We are very clear about that.”
A European Council source confirmed this position, adding that it would look only at what kind of future relationship the UK would have with the EU once the broad terms of Brexit had been agreed. This could involve negotiations between leaders but remained undecided, the source said.
As the fallout from last week’s dinner continued, Mrs May refused to contradict reports in the German media detailing their fractious nature. On Monday Mrs May was accused of complacency after she clashed with Mr Juncker, including over her demand for a rapid resolution of reciprocal rights for EU citizens in the UK and Britons on the Continent.
He left the meeting believing that Brexit talks were likely to collapse, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper reported, and warned that Brexit could not be a success for the UK. “I don’t recall the account that has been given of the meeting that took place,” Mrs May said. “I think a lot of this is Brussels gossip.”
There were also suggestions yesterday that some EU figures are unhappy at the role that Mr Davis is expected to take. One report suggested that some in the commission believed that it was “pointless” negotiating with him and had considered substituting Sabine Weyand, the EU’s deputy negotiator, for Mr Barnier to give Britain a “graceful” way to replace Mr Davis. This has been denied.
Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission spokesman, would not comment on leaks but pointed out that Mr Juncker had publicly described the meeting as “constructive”. Asked what Mr Juncker meant when he had talked about “technical difficulties”, the spokesman said there were many things, including “the sequencing of the negotiation, the degree of difficulty involved in various stages”.
According to the Financial Times, the EU is to increase Britain’s Brexit bill from the initial €60 billion to an upfront payment of €100 billion. The newspaper’s analysis is based on stricter demands from France and Germany, in particular over post-Brexit farm payments and EU administration fees.
As home secretary Theresa May was dubbed “the submarine” (Oliver Wright writes). Less interested than others in media coverage, she gained a reputation for surfacing only when she was ready to make public statements.
Mrs May hoped to use similar tactics for the Brexit talks. Setting out Britain’s negotiating strategy, she warned, would be to hand advantage to the other side.
But some in Whitehall believe this approach is proving to be counterproductive. Briefings from Brussels about her dinner with the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker put her on the back foot.
The European Council is using transparency as a weapon. By publishing its negotiating mandate it is boxing the British in. By playing her cards close to her chest, some say, Mrs May has created unrealistic expectations about what she can achieve.
Those involved in planning the government’s public approach to the negotiations expect this issue to be exacerbated when the talks get under way.
Downing Street sources say that they are aware of the problem — but no one has yet decided how to deal with it. Mrs May says the government will make a success of Brexit. The worry is that she won’t be in a position to define what that is.
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