BRUSSELS/SALZBURG (Reuters) - If Theresa May felt ambushed, as British media saw it, at the Salzburg EU summit, she has only herself to blame for irritating continental leaders with her stand on Brexit, EU officials and diplomats said on Friday.
Many who took part in the meetings were surprised by a near unanimous verdict in Britain that the prime minister had taken an orchestrated drubbing in the city of Mozart and the “Sound of Music”; but if EU leaders did sound a touch sharp and careful to sound in tune with each other, that reflected a genuine reaction to comments and tactics from May and her ministers this week.
“It’s just badly played by the Brits,” said one EU official who was present throughout the two days of meetings in Austria.
Several participants spoke of anger among the leaders at an opinion column May placed in a German newspaper on the first day of the summit that flatly rejected EU negotiator Michel Barnier’s plan for avoiding a dangerous new border in Ireland.
A report that May’s hardline pro-Brexit trade minister planned to do away with EU food safety standards in order to cut a trade deal with Washington also soured the mood and dampened plans to make a show of compromise with the prime minister.
And recent efforts by traveling British ministers to try to pull individual member states away from Barnier’s common negotiating stance, as well as perceptions that May herself was trying to bypass the EU’s point man and parley directly with her peers in Salzburg, also backfired, prompting the 27 others to rally even more closely together and behind Barnier.
Harsh language on either side, and the fighting talk May came out with on Friday in response could increase the chance of talks collapsing and Britain quitting the bloc in March without a deal to ease economic disruption, some diplomats said.
But Brussels negotiators were at pains to stress a continued willingness to conclude a treaty and are looking for a spirit of mutual compromise after Oct. 3, when May will, they believe, have survived her Conservative party’s conference despite attacks on her plans to keep British trade close to the EU.
“We do not at all share the assessment of the British media of the Salzburg outcome and spirit,” one EU official said. “The Commission is, and will continue to be, in a constructive mood.”
The official noted warm words in Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s annual policy address last week for May’s so-called Chequers proposals for a post-Brexit relationship — even if she could not have been surprised to hear Barnier, summit chair Donald Tusk and others repeat what they have been saying in public for weeks — that the trade ideas in it will not fly.
“The British did not seem to believe (Barnier) and instead they were peddling their own narrative that there are big differences between the Barnier team and the leaders,” a diplomat from one of Britain’s closest EU allies told Reuters.
“In the end, the British seemed to start believing their own spin and this must have encouraged May to go above the head of Barnier and appeal directly to EU leaders at the dinner — which also did not go down well with them.”
Another diplomat present said: “I think she came to Salzburg with false expectations, probably caught up in what was mainly the UK’s own spin about the 27 getting weak and divided.”
Some drama is often seen as a useful part of reaching a diplomatic deal that is unlikely to be popular with voters, but there was also some concern in Brussels that it will be useful to keep tempers in check as both sides try to avoid a stalemate.
French President Emmanuel Macron calling Brexit campaigners liars and a jokey social media posting by Tusk about May not being allowed to “cherry pick” EU market access were “not helpful”, one EU official said.
Encounters around next week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York could provide an opportunity for various EU leaders to cool down temperatures with the British.
Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Richard Balmforth