When Theresa May dismissed unflattering press reports of her disastrous dinner with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker as ‘Brussels gossip’, she signalled an unexpected reversal in the UK’s relationship with the EU.
For many years, governments in London have accused Brussels of lacking transparency – the ‘secretive power brokers of the unelected Eurocracy’ has been the criticism British politicians frequently levelled against the EU.
Now suddenly the EU is coming under fire for openness. 10 Downing Street’s complaint is that the prime minister’s guests on 26 April – Juncker and his aides along with the Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier – unfairly leaked details of a private meeting. Building on that, the May government now insists that the Brexit negotiations should, once under way, be conducted behind closed doors.
The UK government’s sudden conversion to secrecy after having long called for transparency is quite a volte-face. It also flies in the face of reality.
The sheer complexity of forthcoming negotiations that will reach into every nook and cranny of public policies on both sides makes it impossible that they can be kept confidential. Nor is it desirable that discussions touching on the lives and livelihoods of over half a billion Europeans should be conducted sub rosa.
It is now apparently dawning on the UK’s chief Brexiteer minister David Davis that, as well as dealing with the EU’s formidably expert negotiating team, the UK must also satisfy a host of interests.
If a Brexit deal does, despite the largely British opening barrage of tough stances, somehow emerge from the negotiations, it must be accepted by the European Parliament and approved by the remaining 27 EU member governments. Unlike the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ at Westminster, most national parliaments across Europe will be asked to ratify the agreement.
These uncomfortable political realities seem largely lost on British public opinion, on the UK government and on Theresa May herself. The row over press accounts of her Downing Street dinner was still raging when the prime minister decided to give an impromptu speech outside No 10 accusing the EU leadership of using the leaks to interfere in the 8 June snap election she recently called.
Viewed from Brussels, May’s outburst verged on the hysterical, and was quickly interpreted as a bid to consolidate the xenophobic vote that narrowly triumphed in last June’s Brexit referendum. It seemed particularly unhinged when contrasted to Michel Barnier’s press conference a few hours earlier, in which he had set out his broad intentions in a remarkably conciliatory manner.
The question now being asked in Brussels and in EU countries’ national capitals is whether the UK government’s public stance will become more and more outrageous as the realities of its negotiating weakness come into view.
Politicians understand each other’s electoral pressures, so some allowances will doubtless be made on the continent for Mrs May’s intemperate outburst. But after the five weeks of election campaigning are over, EU officials and member state leaders will be less forgiving.
Britain’s political culture of conflict and name-calling is, as it were, foreign to continental coalition-builders. The upheavals of Brexit are already seen as unnecessary and unwelcome distractions from the challenges facing Europe. It doesn’t help, therefore, to add insult to injury.
EU leaders are anxiously hoping for a French presidential victory on Sunday by Emmanuel Macron, and know that this essential if the Union is to surmount its own shortcomings through reform. The EU is therefore not in any mood to accept gratuitous insults from a British prime minister who was originally opposed to Brexit. Theresa May would do well to understand that berating those with whom she has to negotiate is not a recipe for success.
Friends of Europe
Giles Merritt is founder and Chairman of the think tank Friends of Europe and its policy journal, Europe’s World. He was foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and is Advisory Board Member of the Scottish Centre on European Relations