Juncker tells May he is '10 times more sceptical than before' on Brexit

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[Account of meeting between PM and EU commission head sees some close to latter put chances of talks failing at ‘over 50%’. *RON*]

Daniel BoffeyPhilip Oltermann, and Rajeev Syal, The Guardian, 1 May 2017

Theresa May greets Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of a ‘very constructive’ meeting at Downing Street. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images
A devastating account of a dinner in Downing Street between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker has emerged, claiming the European commission president ended discussions about a potential Brexit deal by telling the British prime minister: “I’m leaving Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before.”

Those close to Juncker are said to have subsequently concluded that the chances of Brexit talks failing were now “over 50%”. An EU spokesman declined to comment, except to point out that Juncker had told reporters at a summit on Saturday that the dinner was a “very constructive meeting, a friendly atmosphere”.

The detailed account of the meeting on Wednesday between May and Juncker, who was accompanied by the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and key staff, suggests the two sides are dangerously divided on key issues such as Britain’s divorce bill and the future rights of EU citizens.

According to German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, May is said to have told Juncker the UK did not legally owe a penny to the EU under existing treaties.

She is also said to have told him the issue of citizens’ rights could be settled in the opening few weeks of formal negotiations, which are due to start in June after the UK general election.

It was reported that May suggested EU citizens would in future receive only the same rights in relation to living and working in the UK as anyone else who was not a British citizen.

Juncker responded that such a scenario would be problematic, because EU citizens currently enjoy additional rights. “I think you are underestimating this, Theresa,” he was quoted as saying.

Juncker reportedly called the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, after the dinner, claiming May was “on a different galaxy”.

The commission has compiled a dossier on the rights it expects EU nationals living in the UK to keep and those it expects EU citizens to be able to acquire should they move to Britain.

On Saturday, at a summit where the remaining 27 EU member states adopted their negotiating guidelines, Juncker told reporters he was doubtful the UK would sign up swiftly to their dossier and suggested London had a simplistic take on the issue.

“I have the impression sometimes that our British friends, not all of them, do underestimate the technical difficulties we have to face,” he said, adding that May had told him in response to each of his questions about the future: “Be patient and ambitious.”

On Britain’s divorce bill, the EU delegation, which estimates Britain’s liabilities to be about €60bn (£51bn), are said to have told May over dinner that the UK had entered commitments with every passed budget and the bloc was not a golf club that could be easily joined or left. The EU, they said, was like a family, and Brexit should be treated as a divorce.

David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the EU, is said to have retorted that the rest of the EU could not do anything about the financial demands once the UK had left because it would no longer answer to the rulings of the European court of justice (ECJ).

Juncker pointed out that the UK wanted a trade deal, but without agreement on money there would be no desire among the 27 member states to make that happen. The whole exit process would change, the commission president is said to have responded.

“Let us make Brexit a success,” May is said to have beseeched the commission president. According to the German newspaper, Juncker said while he wanted an orderly exit, not chaos, after Britain withdraws from the EU in 2019, it would be a third country state for the EU, adding: “Brexit cannot be a success.”

It is also claimed that Juncker pulled out copies of Croatia’s accession treaty and the recently agreed Canadian free trade deal, which is more than 2,000 pages long, weighing 6kg (13lbs) in total, to point out the complexity of what is to come.

May is said to have been surprised by his response and defended her optimism with reference to her negotiations over Britain’s opt-outs from the justice and home affairs chapter in the Lisbon treaty, which was a symbolic hard break but kept all Britain’s old ties intact.

The article in the German newspaper also suggested that the EU delegation picked up on some irritation on the side of the prime minister at interventions from the Brexit secretary.

Davis is said to have made three separate references during the dinner to having successfully blocked May’s one-time plans for extra powers of surveillance for Britain’s security services via the ECJ. The newspaper claimed that May appeared unamused, leaving Juncker’s circle to discuss among themselves whether Davis would still be in charge of negotiations after the UK election.

As to the coming shape of the negotiations, May is said to have proposed that the two sides meet once a month for four days in Brussels, with positioning papers published beforehand. But she said the talks should take place in private.

“Everything should remain secret,” she is said to have demanded, to consternation from the EU side, which pointed out that the commission needed to keep the European parliament informed throughout the process.

Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said on Monday: “Theresa May talks about strengthening her hand, but in reality she has misjudged her hand at every turn, weakening Britain’s position.

“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.”

The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, said the account demonstrated the chaos at the heart of the government’s Brexit strategy.

“These reports have blown a massive hole in the Conservative party’s arguments. It’s clear this government has no clue and is taking the country towards a disastrous hard Brexit,” he said.

“Theresa May chose a divisive hard Brexit, with Labour’s help, and now has no idea what to do next. This election offers us a chance to change the direction of our country, keep Britain in the single market and give the people the final say over what happens next.”

A government spokesman said: “We do not recognise this account. As the PM and Jean-Claude Juncker made clear, this was a constructive meeting ahead of the negotiations formally getting under way.”

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