I translated *that* German article concerning the May-Juncker dinner everyone’s been talking about.
For the past few days UK media hasn’t stopped talking about this article in German newspaper FAS, but according to Forbes there were no decent translations of it online yet — challenge accepted. Read below:
The Brexit dinner
On Wednesday evening, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker visited the Prime Minister Theresa May. Many important things were to be discussed, but both sides missed each other’s points. When Juncker left, he said he was ten times more sceptical than before. By Thomas Gutschker.
Jean-Claude Juncker has witnessed many difficult negotiations. For months on end the President of the European Commission fought with Alexis Tsipras for Greece to meet its obligations. And ever since the refugee crisis he has been fighting with Viktor Orbán over European solidarity. Juncker is the kind of man who, even after the toughest conversations, will amicably clap their conversation partner on the shoulders and say we’ll find a solution. The President of the European Commission had left the British Prime Minister’s official residence on Wednesday evening after a memorable meeting. He had received a friendly welcome but while everyone had remained calm he did not feel like issuing calming 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 host as he left.
Ten times more sceptical than before — even Juncker’s companions were astonished at these words. They had never heard their boss use such words. Not even in the most difficult hours, of which there have been many during his presidency. Of course everyone had flown to London feeling rather sceptical. However a glimmer of hope had remained that the British government was gradually realising how much of a fundamental decision Brexit was and what tremendous problems it would raise. May’s letter formally notifying the EU in late March of Britain’s exit had given reason for such hope. For the first time ever, she had admitted that London would lose certain advantages from leaving the common market. And when a draft of the EU’s Article 50 guidelines became known to the public, she had also reacted moderately. She thought the guidelines were reasonable — even though she didn’t agree with them. In addition to this, the highly regarded Civil Service — the Crown’s best civil servants — had done incredible work by compiling several files concerning Brexit negotiations that had showed both expertise and fairness. Would May now show herself from a new side — pragmatic and willing to compromise?
The Prime Minister had invited Juncker after surprisingly calling for a new election. He debated whether he should visit so shortly before the elections, but it was also shortly before the EU summit regarding Brexit was to take place. So he decided to go. As President of the European Commission he represents all 28 states, and so it only seemed right and proper to hear the British point of view before the 27 remaining states would convene in Brussels. Up until then he had adhered strictly to the guidelines he had issued: no negotiations about Brexit before formal notice had been given. He had made this clear at a lunch during May’s first visit as Prime Minister in October. Both sides agreed that at least their heads of cabinet — German Martin Selmayr representing Juncker and Oliver Robbins for May — should meet every six weeks in order to informally prepare the negotiation process. That was it.
On Wednesday evening all four met together in a room before dinner began. May had announced via her spokesperson that she wished not only to talk about Brexit, but also about other world problems. Juncker asked what was on the agenda. Nothing, as it turned out. So he picked up on a topic that in his mind had nothing to do with Britain’s exit from the EU. London had just blocked a decision in Brussels. This decision regarded the so-called mid-term review, which reviews the EU budget halfway through its seven-year financial period. As no one had anticipated the refugee crisis, billions of Euros would have to be re-allocated or newly approved. One example of that spending would be the extension of Frontex into a border and coastal guard in cooperation with African states. This had been negotiated over several months and on Wednesday morning the EU states had planned to pass the changed priorities. However, on Monday evening an email from the British EU representative had arrived: due to the upcoming elections, the UK was no longer able to make any far-reaching decisions.
What was she getting at, Juncker asked his host. May was about to explain the so-called Purdah rules to him, but the President of the Commission was well aware of them already. The Purdah rules are meant to prevent the existing government from tying the future government’s hands shortly before an election. However, everyone is currently expecting that May will continue to be the next Prime Minister –including herself. Beyond that, her government had already approved important elements of the revised financial plans for the current annual budget.
That’s why EU circles see this stab by London as something different — they see it as an early battle move foreshadowing the negotiations over the British EU divorce bill. It is feared that May will use moves such as these to ruin everyday business in order to improve her bad negotiation position. Juncker therefore retorted immediately. If May was so concerned about not tying the future government’s hands, then it would also not be possible to talk about exit negotiation conditions such as schedules, the space to be used, participants to be involved and so on. The clock was ticking — as she had said. This prelude to the dinner made it clear to both sides that this would not be an easy evening.
Half an hour later they left for dinner. The party grew by Michael Barnier, the European chief negotiator for Brexit, and his deputy, the German Sabine Weynand. On British side May was joined by Brexit Minister David Davis. Davis drew the visitors’ attention that evening by repeatedly boasting [three times] about having successfully sued the European Court of Justice over British data retention. Back then he had been a Conservative backbencher, while Theresa May had been Home Secretary at the time and responsible for the law in question. It is possible that Davis thought the several hints would provide a good icebreaker. His boss however seemed rather un-amused by his effort. The visitors asked themselves whether Davis would continue to be responsible for negotiations following the elections, especially as it seemed that May had her own expectations about how discussions should proceed.
She mentioned wanting to secure the rights of the three million Europeans living in the United Kingdom and the one million Britons living on the continent. That suits the EU well, as it is also their highest priority. This topic could already be cleared by late June during the next European Council meeting, she suggested. Her visitors were astonished — just two weeks after the elections?
No problem for May. She wanted EU citizens to be treated like any other non-EU citizen in the UK. This is a big problem for Juncker –after all, EU citizens enjoy many special rights and these should be maintained as far as possible. There are difficult questions to answer — not just concerning the right to remain. One example is health insurance: Up until now EU immigrants receive free health treatment just as any other Briton does. In exchange, the Brits also don’t pay when they go to the doctor in Berlin or Paris — the state pays the bill.
“I think you’re underestimating this, Theresa”, Juncker said. He pulled two large piles of paper from his briefcase — Croatia’s treaty of accession to the EU and a trade agreement with Canada. Several thousand pages long and with a combined weight of six kilograms. The divorce contract and a future trade agreement will be at least as extensive as this, he warned.
May wants to approach all the other topics in an unconventional manner too: she wants monthly negotiation blocks taking place over four days in Brussels, prepared with position papers. Everything should stay secret until a conclusion is reached, she demanded. Understandable — she’s got the Brexit-hungry tabloids at her back. However from a Brussels perspective that is impossible, as every step has to be agreed with all other member states and the European Parliament. That is why the Commission wants to publish its documents immediately.
Then the most contentious issue of the divorce negotiations was approached. The EU insists on settling the divorce conditions first before discussing a future relationship. May on the other hand wants to discuss a free trade agreement immediately and leave the divorce bill to the end. She painted the rosy picture of Brexit that her public speeches have become known for. She spoke of a wealthy, open Britain that was deeply connected with the Single Market — the same as before, just without the annoying responsibilities of membership. “Let us make Brexit a success”, she said to the gathered group.
Juncker countered that he had a slightly different view on this. Yes, he wanted an orderly exit without chaos. And yes, he wanted continued good relationships with London. However, following Brexit Britain would become a non-member country of the EU — a country that, unlike Turkey, wouldn’t even be part of the customs union. He believed that the country will be in a worse position than it is today. “Brexit cannot be made a success”, he stated.
May seemed surprised. Possibly no one had said this so clear to her in a while. She defended her vision by making references to a pevious experience with European negotiations –she argued that protocol 36 had been dealt with in the same way. While the protocol had meant a lot on paper, it changed little in reality. Now Junckers’ people’s alarm bells were ringing. They had feared something like this, and now it had happened.
Protocol 36 is an addition to the Lisbon Treaty, the last of the great reforms of the European contracts. It summarises various special provisions, on of which concerns the Brits. They had reserved the right to opt out of all domestic and legal policies. Back then, this agreement was sold as a defence of British sovereignty. However, London had immediately opted back in to two thirds of the fifty affected acts of law — out of pure self-interest. This had been kept fairly quiet. May imagined future relationships with the EU in a similar way. While she wanted Britain to make an official hard cut she wanted the country to still be included in matters of its own interest.
Juncker saw two options now — either remain silent and thereby possibly support May’s illusions, or to hit back at her. He decided for the latter. “The more I hear, the more sceptical I become”, the Head of the Commission said. The dinner was now half over.
The second half did not improve. The topic of money was approached. The EU estimates costs of around 60 to 65 billion Euros for London. May argued her country did not owe the European Union a single penny, as the contracts made no mention of divorce bills upon exit. Her visitors countered that with every previous budget and with mid-term financial planning, London had made legal financial commitments. The EU, they argued, was not a golf club that one could join or leave as one pleased (although the similarity remained that even here one would lose their deposit). Rather, the European Union was a large community based on the need for peace. The parents had now had children. Along with the divorce they now had to face their responsibilities.
Brexit Minister Davis pointed out that the EU would not be able to push through its demands once London had left, as it would no longer subject to the European Court. Okay, Juncker replied, but should Britain act like this there would be no will to form a free trade agreement either. Moreover, the exit process would change completely. According to the EU contract, only national governments and the European Parliament have to agree to an exit agreement — it merely requires a majority. However, if negotiations led to the remaining states being left with unpaid British bills, then every single nation’s parliament would need to be involved in the negotiations. After all, national members of parliament decide locally how much money gets transferred to Brussels. And why should they step in for London?
Berlin has made it clear on several occasions, both publicly and internally, that it is not willing to do that. When representatives of heads of states had last discussed the issue, the Dutch representative had also made it clear that his country would not step in for a single penny. The motion passed on Saturday almost leaves chief negotiator Barnier no wiggle room on the subject.
One and a half hours later the dinner had ended. Juncker left with the words “I’m leaving Downing Street ten times more sceptical than I was before”. It was meant to be a late night wake up call. However, as Juncker was under the impression that it he hadn’t made much of an impression, he sent out a second wake up call the next morning. He involved the German Chancellor. What Angela Merkel said cannot simply be ignored in London — after all, Berlin is seen to be one of the EU’s closest allies.
Juncker and Merkel had agreed to speak on the phone on the afternoon following the dinner. On breakfast TV the President of the Commission saw that she was due to make a government statement to the European Council before their phone call. It was just after seven o’clock in the morning. He called Merkel on her mobile and put her in the picture about the situation. His message boiled down to the view that Theresa May was living in her own galaxy and harbouring unrealistic illusions. Merkel quickly made changes to her government statement.
Just one and a half hours later she stood at the lectern in the Bundestag. First she talked about Turkey, then about Brexit guidelines. She spoke clearly and set out three priorities: she wanted to secure the rights of Germans in Britain, avert damage from the European Union and strengthen the union of the 27. She mentioned all the points that Juncker had made the evening before. She argued that the divorce, including financial obligations, needed to be settled before a new relationship could be discussed and that non-member countries could not have the same rights as member countries. Then she added: “Dear colleagues, these conditions may seem like common sense to you. However, I think it is necessary to make such clear statements, as I think some in Britain continue to harbour illusions [about the divorce terms]. That however would be wasted time.” With some in Britain she meant none other than Theresa May.
Her message had an effect, as the British media reported widely about it. It was dubbed as Merkel’s “hard-line Brexit speech”. May also reacted promptly from an election campaign appearance in an area that still votes Labour. Everyone had heard Merkel’s words, she said. “There will be times when these negotiations gets tough”, she warned. Her domestic political enemies — she had meant Labour — would try to disturb negotiations. “At the same time the 27 states will unite against us”, she continued. Every vote placed for the Conservatives and as such for her, would therefore improve Britain’s negotiation position.
Theresa May against the rest of Europe — that’s how the prime minister wants to capture votes. It’s a risky venture, both for her and for Europe. It may well be that her majority in the Commons will be so large that she will no longer have to concern herself with Brexit hardliners. However, what possible use is that if she starts harbouring hardliner illusions herself?
Juncker left London with great worries. Circles around him now consider failed negotiations to be “more than fifty percent” likely. They still hope that Britain will face the facts soon. They hope that pressures from the economy will lead to a wake up call in government, as a chaotic Brexit could throw the country into an existential crisis. Communicating their worries so openly is part of the strategy –because sometimes the alarm bells have to ring very loud for people to wake up.
Translation by Katharina Massmann