Brexit and the EU-UK war of words

Media reports said that after PM Theresa May-EC President Jean-Claude Juncker dinner EU officials described PM May as being in a different galaxy re Brexit negotiations. May reacted that Juncker will now see that she can be bloody difficult woman and that EU is seeking to affect result of British election.The atmosphere is hardly great even without the real negotiations. How do you read this, is this just a war of words or does it probably indicates that the negotiation will be extremely difficult, even pretty harsh? Read few comments.

Peter Moloney, Visiting Assistant Professor, Boston College

The harsh words that we hear now from both sides reflect the awkward balancing act they each have to perform. The EU cannot appear to concede ground to a rebellious member yet must find a way to make the negotiations work, albeit with the UK receiving some kind of disadvantage for their actions. Th UK government has to send out tough signals to please its Eurosceptic fans yet not risk destroying very delicate negotiations. So far, we have seen mixed messages from both sides that reflect this balancing act. It is almost part of political theatre.

On the UK side, this is election season, when aggressive posturing against foreign diktats are quite popular among the British public, especially among Conservative voters. This approach has always won them support, especially since the days of Thatcher. It is almost like a public ritual expected by the British public. However, there is a greater risk involved now as negotiations are set to begin and stakes are high. the worst signal Mrs May could send out right now domestically is to appear weak.  A diplomat once asked Mrs Thatcher if she thought the EU environment in Brussels was like a game of ‘snakes and ladders’, the popular family board game. She replied, ‘oh no, they are all snakes in Brussels’. This has become a growing British perception of the EU.

There is no doubt that both sides are far apart on their expectations for a Brexit deal. Hence the ‘different galaxy’ comment. However, negotiations have not started yet, when a real compromise will have to be made. Right now, it is like both people in a divorce speaking to their own friends, with no real legal consequences for their words. Once they sit down in a court room to negotiate with the opposition, concessions will have to be made if a deal is to happen.

Oliver Daddow, Assistant Professor in British Politics and Security, University of Nottingham

Things were destined to be very tough even before Theresa May called the General Election for 8 June 2017. Why? because the sides seem so far apart on the divorce bill, even before the terms of the separation are agreed and the future form of the relationship hammered out. The two-year time pressure adds to the sense of foreboding about how things might go.

The General Election heightens existing tensions and creates some new ones. Playing to domestic galleries has always been the default setting for UK politicians when it comes to European policy: partly, but not only, down to their perceived need to appease a largely EU-hostile press and media market. Historically, this has not gone down well with the UK’s European partners.The content of the Brexit negotiations, combined with a febrile General Election atmosphere, was never going to be conducive to constructive diplomacy and a cooperative tone on the UK side.

Questions seriously need to be asked about Theresa May’s handling of this vital national issue. Edward Heath negotiated the UK’s way into the then EEC with a much smaller majority than May currently has. So if May is wanting a larger majority to strengthen her hand she is, first, mistaken that it will impress the EU and, second, basically admitting that her and her team are not effective negotiators.

Michael Geary, Assistant Professor of Contemporary European and International History, Maastricht University, Global Fellow, Wilson Center

Who said these negotiations were going to be easy? There is so much at stake for both sides of the Brexit negotiating table. Between now the and the beginning of substantive talks, the temperature is inevitable going to rise. Both sides will want to presents tough stances. It was very much the same during the accession talks between London and Brussels over the 18 months from 1970-72. Those talks only concluded successfully when the then British PM Edward Heath flew to Paris for private talks with French President Georges Pompidou in order to iron out the remaining intractable issues linked to Britain’s annual contribution to the EC’s budget.

Unsurprisingly, over four decades later, the issue is still about money and Britain’s contribution as part of the messy divorce settlement. Theresa May is taking a page out of Margaret Thatcher’s playbook. Bashing the Brussels Eurocrats goes down very well with a Eurosceptic national audience in the middle of a general election. Projecting Brussels as the bad guy and her as the strong leader needed to win the Brexit battle can only play to her advantage. How much of this election-mode hostility finds its way into the exit negotiations remains to be seen.

Nick Wright, Teaching Fellow in EU Politics, University College London

I think the negotiations will be very tough – but that was always going to be the case. Whatever the exclamations after the referendum and then after Article 50 that both sides wanted to them to be as swift and business-like as possible, and whatever the hopes to move to discussions of the future, post-Brexit relationship, there is a simple reality here: the UK will not be able to enjoy as beneficial relationship with the EU as it has now if it is not willing to accept the fundamental principles of membership, which include freedom of movement and jurisdiction of the ECJ. It has said it is not – which is clear and the EU-27 will respect that; for its part, though, the UK needs to understand that the EU-27 now have one clear, shared interest – protecting their citizens’ rights at home and abroad by maintaining the integrity of the EU.

In terms of the specifics of the deal, the high figure for outstanding financial obligations is, to my mind, an opening bid and there will be room for manoeuvre. But one thing that is largely overlooked here in the UK is that this figure seems to have emerged from discussions by the member states and is not what the Commission initially proposed. It is the other member states who are pushing this, so Mrs May’s ill-judged tirade against Brussels yesterday was foolish and counter-productive. It certainly was not the act of a level-headed statesperson. (Can you imagine Chancellor Merkel saying anything like that?) It is not Brussels institutions seeking this sum, but her soon-to-be former partners in the European Council whom she has not sought to woo or build a proper rapport with.

One concern I do have, though, is that the more I hear from the UK government and the more I hear about its apparent preparations, the more they seem to be entirely unprepared at the political level for what Brexit will actually entail. I think there is a serious dearth of understanding at the most senior political levels in the UK government about quite what Brexit will mean in practice. The sacking of our Permanent Representative, Sir Ivan Rogers, for apparently being ‘too pessimistic’ about the negotiations is a strong indication of this. Meanwhile, the Department for Exiting the European Union was advertising for 10 Policy Leads two weeks after the triggering of Article 50. Given that this kind of work should have been conducted way before this happened, this is not the sign of a government that has a proper grip on proceedings.

Finally, there is Theresa May herself. When she became PM she was widely praised as being a steady pair of hands and a pragmatist – you don’t survive 6 years at the Home Office without this. During this election campaign – and most obviously with her outburst yesterday – she seems far from the cool-headed, steadying hand the UK needs. She comes across as shrill and out of her depth, very uncomfortable when questioned about the detail of Brexit and happy, instead, to resort to an almost Erdogan-esque form of political campaigning based on endlessly repeating the mantra of ‘strong and stable leadership’ in front of adoring, hand-picked crowds. Far from being ‘strong and stable’ she is comes across as prickly and over-sensitive – more Trump than Thatcher. This does not bode well for when the negotiations do finally get under way.

In short, the negotiations will be hard because the EU is in a very strong position and the UK’s relative weakness is exacerbated by it not seeming to have any clear sense of what it wants or how it is to achieve it, and its view that EU level transparency is a threat. The negotiations need to succeed for everyone’s sake so both sides can move on and develop a new and hopefully constructive and – eventually – close relationship again. Right now, the UK Prime Minister seems a long way from being able to deliver that, regardless of the size of majority she is likely to be returned with next month.

Kristian SteinnesProfessor, Department of Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

1) In the process leading up to complicated and complex negotiations, not least this one – one of the more difficult negotiations globally – both parties are prone to present their objectives in a rather blunt and harsh way. So yes, what we have seen might be positioning ahead of the upcoming negotiations. I take that this is normal procedure in any complex and important negotiation.

2) However, this appears to be more complicated. If we look behind the normal squabbling, T. May may have underestimated the challenges inherent in the future negotiations – i.e. the leaks may contain some truth. She cannot just lean back in the believe that the UK is a big and important country the EU somehow will have to give concessions. Even if we might get this impression. The EU, on the other hand, seems (at least so far) to unite behind the adopted strategy which makes it even more challenging for the British. Barnier and his team appears not to regard the British as indispensable. My reading of this is that the negotiations – and how and by whom the they will be carried out – will be very difficult. The stakes are high.

3) May’s reaction may to some extent also be part of the election campaign since she can present herself (and be perceived) as defending British interests by being a ‘bloody difficult woman’. Yet the future is always opaque, but my best guess is that the negotiations will be (extremely) difficult and that we recently have seen signs to that effect. First the two parties will have to agree on negotiations strategies (i.e. settling the divorce package – the financial arrangements and coming to terms with EU-citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU). Second, will will see negotiations for a new trade agreement which also will be extremely challenging. Indeed, May have a very, very difficult task.

4) Taking the short negotiation window into account, perhaps we eventually will see an interim arrangement becoming more or less permanent…?

Simon UsherwoodAssociate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

Both sides are trying to establish their power to shape the negotiations, and to remind the other that they hold some power. However, the outcome of this is mainly to underline how difficult the process will be: there is no clearly a chance that no decision will be reached within the 2-year period. That should give both sides much cause for concern, especially since we have not begun the substantive negotiations yet.


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