BRUSSELS – British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday accused European Union officials of trying to influence the U.K. elections, ratcheting up tensions with Brussels over her country’s departure from the bloc.
Just hours after the EU unveiled its plan for Brexit talks, which delays discussion on issues like trade that are so dear to Britain, May said that “the European Commission’s negotiating stance has hardened. Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials.”
“All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election that will take place on 8 June,” she told reporters outside 10 Downing Street, in a speech aimed at rallying support for her Conservative Party ahead of next month’s polls.
May’s comments follow leaked comments in the British and European press suggesting the EU thinks Britain is not facing reality about the conditions of its EU exit and the complexity of the negotiations ahead.
“The events of the last few days have shown that — whatever our wishes, and however reasonable the positions of Europe’s other leaders — there are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed,” she said.
The head of the EU’s executive Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, expressed regret that details of his private dinner with May last week had made the news.
A German news report said that Juncker left the meeting saying he was “10 times more skeptical than I was before” that negotiations will succeed. May dismissed the report as “Brussels gossip.”
May also vowed Tuesday to be a “bloody difficult woman” in Brexit talks.
Juncker said: “I have noted that she is a tough lady.”
Earlier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier insisted that Britain’s accounts must be settled before any talks on its future trade relationship with the EU can take place, as he warned that time is running out to seal a deal by 2019.
Unveiling the Commission’s negotiating mandate for Britain’s departure, Barnier said he was not hostile to Britain and the bloc did not want to punish it for leaving — but “we have to settle the account, not more not less.”
The amount London owes the EU has become one of the most contentious subjects in the Brexit process, with some reports estimating it could climb to as much as 100 billion euros ($109 billion) — a figure that Britain has flatly rejected paying.
U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis told ITV that Britain “will meet our international obligations,” but added: “We will not be paying 100 billion.”
Davis also dismissed reports the EU could bar May from Brexit discussions at future heads of state and government meetings.
This is the first time a member has ever left the EU, so these negotiations are taking the Europeans into uncharted waters. The process is unprecedented and complicated, and combined with fresh delays caused by the snap elections in Britain, is raising tensions between London and the 27 nations that will remain in the EU.
Barnier did not specify how much Britain should pay, but his negotiating mandate said it should cover budget payments, the cost of ending Britain’s membership of any EU institution including banks, and the bill for relocating any EU agencies on its territory. London must also pay in euros rather than pounds, meaning that it should bear the currency exchange costs.
The European Parliament’s Brexit point man, Guy Verhofstadt, also declined to go into numbers. He said the parties must first agree on the “accounting principles” from which the bill will be determined.
“We cannot ask to the 27 remaining members to pay the bill for the departure of a country,” he said. As in any divorce, he added, “you can’t just say ‘My partner will take all the burden.'”
Money aside, the top priority of the talks is how to handle the rights of some 3 million citizens from the 27 nations living in Britain and up to 2 million Britons residing on the continent. All face massive uncertainty on such issues as health benefits, pensions, taxes, employment and education.
Another key aim is to keep people and goods moving smoothly across the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and EU member Ireland.
Under the negotiating mandate, EU states would have to approve progress on these and other immediate exit issues before Barnier can start negotiating the outline of the bloc’s future relations with Britain after it leaves.
Some British politicians, including May, have said walking away would be better than a bad deal, and Barnier conceded that the EU has planned for such a contingency.
“We are prepared for all options,” he said. “But the option I am working on is getting an agreement.”