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The “disastrous” dinner

The “disastrous” dinner

What happened

Theresa May was forced on the defensive over her approach to Brexit this week, following the leak of a damaging account of her recent dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission. According to reports in German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, last week’s meal at Downing Street – which brought the UK and EU negotiating teams together for the first time – was a fractious affair. The two sides apparently clashed over many issues, including the pace of trade talks and Britain’s exit bill. Juncker reportedly warned the PM that “Brexit cannot be a success”, and told her he was leaving Downing Street “ten times more sceptical” that a deal would be reached. In a phone call to Angela Merkel, he told the German chancellor that May was living “in a different galaxy”. May dismissed the reports as “Brussels gossip”.

The dinner was held days before EU leaders met at a special summit last weekend to finalise their negotiating demands. In a show of unity, they took just four minutes to approve the uncompromising draft, before bursting into applause.

What the editorials said

“When it becomes serious, you have to lie.” That’s what Jean-Claude Juncker once famously claimed, said The Sun, and you can bet he has “grossly distorted” what went on at last week’s dinner. How depressing that this “blustering Euro-toad” is involved in the Brexit process, and that diehard Remainers have been so quick to accept his “one-sided, self-serving leak” at face value. They, like him, are desperately hoping that the UK can be bullied into abandoning Brexit. It won’t work, said the Daily Mail. “Unlike Mr Juncker, Mrs May has a democratic mandate and she intends to honour it.”

But you don’t have to think highly of Juncker to see that the Brexit talks face daunting obstacles, said The Guardian. May thought the question of expatriate rights could be settled by June; Juncker said that was far too optimistic. May told Juncker that there is nothing in the EU treaties about exit bills; Juncker says there will be no trade deal until the UK agrees to pay up. May thinks we can leave EU institutions and then opt back in selectively; the EU says that is a legal and political impossibility. The reality is that the PM’s Brexit vision – “to the extent that she has elaborated it in any detail” – looks “increasingly difficult to believe in”.

What the commentators said

“Like a collision between supertankers, the crash between British and European Brexit negotiators has been a long time coming but was no less spectacular for it,” said Dan Roberts in The Guardian. For things to progress, both sides will need to take a “more realistic account of their opponent’s position”. The EU must accept that it will be “easier for Theresa May to write a cheque if she has something to show for it”; and the UK must face up to the costs of Brexit.

Europe’s negotiating position is currently being set by the Commission, which, with no electorate to answer to, takes a very dogmatic line on EU issues, said Mark Wallace in the i newspaper. But as time goes on, Juncker and his fellow ideologues will be “reined in by more pragmatic voices in the national capitals”. Don’t count on it, said Gideon Rachman in the FT. It’s actually all too easy to imagine these talks breaking down in mutual acrimony. There is a “fairly pronounced ‘finest hour’ reflex in most British people, which is susceptible to an appeal to glorious isolation”. And the EU may find that confrontation with the UK continues to serve as a “useful rallying point” for an otherwise divided Union – and as a focus for the anger at everything else that is going wrong inside the bloc.

EU leaders are clearly preparing for the worst, said Stephen Bush in the New Statesman. The fact that the leaked report of the Downing Street dinner was written in German should have alerted us to the fact that it wasn’t aimed at us, but at German voters. The message? “Don’t blame Angie if the talks end in tears and Germans living and working in Britain see their rights go up in smoke.” EU leaders are “getting their excuses in early”. Britain must also start planning for a no-deal scenario, said Juliet Samuel in The Daily Telegraph. I don’t welcome such a prospect – it would involve “stomach-churning risks” – but it may be “forced upon us”. Besides, only by showing that we’re prepared for such an outcome will we win compromises from the EU. The risk otherwise is that we’ll be railroaded by the EU27 into accepting a lousy Brexit deal that carries “all of the economic costs and none of the democratic benefits”.

What next?

The EU has raised Britain’s exit bill to a gross payment of up to s100bn, according to a Financial Times analysis of new demands driven by France and Germany. Paris and Warsaw have pushed for the inclusion of post-Brexit annual farm payments, while Berlin is against granting Britain a share of EU assets.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, says no figure will be set until the end of the Brexit process, but that the UK must agree to the methodology before trade talks begin. He says payments could be staggered. Brexit Secretary David Davis insisted this week that the UK would pay what was legally due, in line with its rights and obligations, but “not just what the EU wants”.

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