Top of Downing Street’s list of suspects is the chef de cabinet of the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker. Not only is Martin Selmayr suspected by UK officials of being a possible source for leaks about last Wednesday’s disastrous dinner, he has also taken (in British eyes) to actively trolling Theresa May’s government in public. Over the weekend he responded to perceived British intransigence over the EU budget by tweeting that all preliminary Brexit talks were now cancelled in retaliation. Seen by Downing Street as an unhelpful ideologue rather than a neutral interlocutor, Britain will be keen to avoid such Brussels powerbrokers and deal directly with national capitals where possible.
Another perceived Twitter troll is the European parliament’s chief Brexit representative, Guy Verhofstadt, who has quickly developed a knack for getting under the skin of Brexiters in London. In response to Theresa May’s election campaign slogan calling on UK voters to pick “strong and stable leadership” to successfully complete Brexit negotiations, Verhofstadt recently sardonically wrote: “Any Brexit deal requires a strong & stable understanding of the complex issues involved. The clock is ticking – it’s time to get real.” The references to May’s campaign slogan and Angela Merkel’s criticism of Britain for having illusions about its future were not lost in Westminster, where they see the EU parliament’s veto over Brexit as a huge potential obstacle to reaching satisfactory agreement.
Even the supposedly neutral civil servants are seen as implacably hostile now to Britain’s long-term ends. The former French diplomat appointed by the European commission to lead the EU negotiations is someone David Davis says he has a good personal relations with. But in the last 24 hours, Barnier has warned that he simply cannot deliver a deal that provides Brexit on British terms. Echoing Merkel’s language, Barnier said it was delusional to expect that Brexit could be painless and quick, as May says she wants. Whether he is right or not, such oppositional language so early in the process is seen as a declaration of war in Whitehall, which wants to get on with things and make Brexit a “success”.
Political leaders in Brussels are sounding even more off-message as far as Downing Street is concerned. The Luxembourg veteran in charge of the EU commission led perhaps the most disastrous delegation yet when he came to dinner with May last Wednesday. Quite apart from their political differences, the personal chemistry was said to be dreadful. One source with knowledge of the dinner told the Guardian it was “ice cold”. Juncker is seen as emblematic of the stateless bureaucrats that Britain wants to escape most, yet is also perhaps the second most powerful figure standing in the way of its preferred Brexit strategy.
Any hope that Britain might be able circumvent Brussels were dashed when the German chancellor – almost certainly the most powerful figure on the EU side – backed EU officials to the hilt in a speech to the Bundestag last Thursday. Informed the night before of the implacable British position that emerged over dinner, Merkel said she had no choice but to spell out her red lines in the bluntest language because too many in Britain were suffering from “illusions”. The German chancellor is facing her own tricky election this autumn and cannot be seen to give ground on sensitive issues such as the EU budget contribution. Nonetheless, accusing a fellow national leader of living in a dream world marked the moment the gloves really came off.
All European politicians are likely to angrily reject the accusation that they are seeking to interfere in the British election by spelling out the differences over Brexit. Nonetheless, most are sophisticated enough to acknowledge that the two are intimately connected. One such political veteran is the new president of the European parliament, who was also once a spokesman for Silvio Berlusconi. During a recent visit to London, Tajani reminded British voters that the election was also their chance to change course. Asked by the Guardian whether May was right to say that there was no turning back over Brexit, he insisted that the country would be welcomed back with open arms if it changed its mind and a government was elected that took a different view about leaving. It was not exactly an exhortation to vote Liberal Democrat but nonetheless sparked outrage in the Eurosceptic press.