On Wednesday evening, all four met in a room before the dinner began. May had announced via her spokesperson that she did not want to speak only about Brexit but about other world problems as well. Juncker asked what those issues were. They turned out to be nothing. So he brought up a topic that, in his view, had nothing to do with the EU-exit. London had just blocked an important resolution in Brussels. It concerned the so-called Midterm Review, the audit of the EU budget in the middle of the seven-year financial period. Because at the beginning of the period the refugee crisis had not been on the radar, billions of Euros had to be reallocated or approved: for example, for building up Frontex to become the new Border and Coast Guard; and, for the collaboration with African states. It had taken months to negotiate. On Wednesday morning the EU states were supposed to have agreed on the changed priorities, but on Monday evening, an email from the British EU delegation trickled in to them: because of the elections, the current Government could not take any more far-reaching decisions.
What was that all about, asked Juncker of his hostess. May wanted to explain to him the Purdah rules, but the Commission head knew about those already. They are to prevent a government, shortly before a Parliamentary election, from tying the hands of its successor. Of course, everyone currently assumes that May will also be the next Prime Minister – her included. On top of that, her government has already agreed important elements of the Midterm Review when it consented to the budget of the current year.
The clock is ticking
In EU circles, the push from London was seen differently: as a preliminary skirmish in the negotiations of the costs associated with the British exit from the EU. It was feared that May was using these irritants to disrupt the daily business of the others – in order to improve her bad negotiating position. Juncker, therefore, started his riposte. If May was so intent on not tying the hands of the next government, then neither could one discuss the modalities of the exit negotiations beforehand: areas of discussion, participants, timelines, and so on. The clock was ticking. After this beginning, it became clear to both sides that this would be no easy evening.
Half an hour later they had dinner. The circle was enlarged now to include Michel Barnier, the European chief negotiator for Brexit and his deputy, the German Sabine Weyand; at May’s side was David Davis, the Brexit Minister. Over the course of the evening, Davis praised himself three times for an heroic deed: namely having successfully brought British Data Retention before the European Court of Justice. At the time, he was still a Conservative backbencher; Theresa May, as Home Secretary, was responsible for drafting the law. Maybe Davis thought the multiple references would be a good icebreaker.
But his boss seemed not exactly amused by what, for her, was not a praiseworthy episode. The visitors asked themselves whether Davis would still be in charge of the negotiations after the parliamentary election.