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Juncker visits May : The Disastrous Brexit Dinner

Not an easy talk: Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker at 10 Downing Street Bild: Reuters

As EU Commission President Juncker dined with British Prime Minister May, they had important matters to discuss. But they talked past each other. In the end Juncker said that he was “ten times more sceptical than before”. It was meant to be a wake-up call.

          Jean-Claude Juncker has seen many difficult negotiations. The President of the European Commission wrestled for months with Alexis Tspiras so that Greece would fulfil its obligations. And with Viktor Orbán, he has been arguing ever since the start of the refugee crisis for European solidarity. Juncker is the kind of guy who after such discussions, when all  heads are smouldering, rubs his counterpart’s shoulders and says that a solution will be found. As the Commission President left the official residence of the British Prime Minister, he left one more memorable meeting. There had been a friendly reception, it never got loud, but he wasn’t in the mood for placating words. Juncker was deeply shocked, and he made no secret of it. “I’m leaving Downing Street ten times more sceptical than I was before” he said to his hostess in parting.

          Thomas Gutschker

          Redakteur im Ressort Politik in der Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung.

          Ten times more sceptical than before – that astounded even Juncker’s entourage. They’d never heard their boss speak like that before, not even in the darkest hours, of which there have been many during his Presidency. Naturally, everyone was already sceptical as they flew to London; but, with a dash of hope that the British government would gradually realise what an earth-shattering decision Brexit was, and what tremendous problems it will cause.

          Pragmatic and ready for compromise?

          The letter at the end of March, in which May formally announced the exit, had given them hope. For the first time, in that letter, she acknowledged that London would lose certain advantages once it was no longer a member of the single market. Thereafter, she reacted moderately when the draft negotiating guidelines became public, which were adopted almost unchanged by the heads of state and heads of governments last Saturday. They were reasonable proposals – even though they ran completely contrary to her expectations. Apart from that, the highly regarded Civil Service, the best officials of the Crown, had in the meantime diligently prepared all sorts of dossiers on every issue of the Brexit negotiations with fairness and professionalism. Would May now see it from a new perspective: pragmatic, ready for compromise?

          The Prime Minister had invited Juncker after having announced the election. He reflected on whether he should go over with so little time before the vote. But that also meant that there was also only a short time before the EU summit, therefore: Yes. As President of the Commission he represents all 28 States, and in that, it seemed right and just also to hear the other side before the 27 states came together in Brussels. Until then, Juncker rigorously adhered to the principle he had defined: no negotiations on Brexit before a written notice of exit came from London. At a lunch in October during May’s inaugural visit as Prime Minister he had made that clear to her. Both agreed that at least their cabinet heads should meet every six weeks, informally to prepare the negotiation process: Martin Selmayr, the German at Juncker’s side, and Oliver Robbins for May. That was it.

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