British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday dismissed an account of a difficult meeting between her and the head of the European Commission as “Brussels gossip”, reiterating that the meeting had gone well.
But while May played down friction with the EU, it came after a weekend that saw the EU-27 adopt a united stance on Brexit and urge Britain to be more realistic in its approach, suggesting that tough negotiations are in store.
May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker met last Wednesday for dinner, ahead of talks over Britain’s departure from the European Union that are expected to begin in June. Both sides said afterwards the meeting had been constructive.
However, Juncker was quoted on Sunday by Germany’s FAS newspaper as saying he was “leaving Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before”, in an account which suggested that he and May did not see eye to eye on a range of issues.
A spokesman said the British government did not recognise that account of events, and May addressed the issue directly in comments to supporters during an election campaign stop in north-west England. Britain faces a national election on June 8.
“I have to say, that from what I’ve seen of this account, I think it’s Brussels gossip,” May said, adding again that the meeting had been constructive.
TOUGH TALKS LOOM
Despite this, there have been mounting signs of a growing gap in perception of how smooth talks will be between London and Brussels.
EU leaders endorsed stiff divorce terms for Britain on Saturday and warned Britons to have “no illusions” that a deal to retain access to European markets will be swift and easy.
Last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel said some in Britain still had illusions over what it could expect from the talks, while Donald Tusk, head of the European Council that groups EU national governments, has urged Britain to get serious.
May said that the account in FAS showed once more how difficult talks would be.
“It… shows that these negotiations at times are going to be tough,” May said during her campaign stop.
British opposition leaders criticised May’s approach to the talks with the EU following the FAS story, including her renewed threat to walk away without a deal.
“The revelations overnight show Theresa May being guilty of astonishing arrogance and complacency,” Tim Farron, leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, told Sky News.
Opinion polls show May’s ruling Conservatives winning the parliamentary election on June 8 with an increased majority.
(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Gareth Jones)