Theresa May’s Brexit: how Europe reacted

A plan for Britain needs European co-operation. PA/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Could British premier Theresa May’s Brexit statement have been any more bullish? Her abrasive tone and thinly veiled threats might almost have been designed to enrage a European elite already irritated over the UK’s prevarications over Brexit.

Speaking in London, May outlined a Wild West Brexit, effectively threatening to set up the UK as a tax superhaven beyond the reach of EU law if she doesn’t get her way. Any attempt by EU negotiators to exact a punitive deal would be “an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe”. So how has her uncompromising message been received in Europe?

A deceptively mild response

Immediate reactions from political elites have been muted, probably because the EU 27 heads of state and government are to meet on February 3 to discuss a common Brexit strategy. Until they have had a chance to table their differences and discuss their options, government leaders will be reluctant to give anything but a broad-brush response to May’s statement.

As Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, each reiterated, the real negotiations can begin only when Britain formally triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, starting the process of its departure. Key leaders, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the French president, François Hollande, the European Council president, Donald Tusk, and Juncker will in any case hold private meetings with May to further clarify her intentions. In the meantime, they will be in no hurry to reveal their hand in public.

Europe’s movers and shakers have left it to their deputies and to the smaller EU member states to make a first response. Low key they may be, but these generally rather diplomatic responses harbour a wide range and depth of opinion. Some have opted to accentuate the positives with encouraging – if cagey – statements. Many, including Steinmeier, could not resist a barbed reference to the time it has taken the UK government to put forward even this sparse plan. Nevertheless, his focus was squarely on May’s stated intent to pursue a positive and constructive partnership with the EU.

Others have expressed disappointment with May’s “retreat from Europe”. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, tweeted that May’s vision for a future UK trade relationship with the EU amounted to less than the Ukraine’s DCFTA (Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement) agreement.

Michel Sapin, France’s finance minister, accused May of “improvising” and “flip-flopping” between different positions. Tomas Prouza, the Czech EU affairs minister, risked a mild Twitter reprimand: “… where is the give for all the take?”

Overall, May’s hard-hitting statement has generally been met by Europe’s political leaders with a collective shrug.

Reaction in the European media and from opposition politicians and business leaders has been much more robust. It ranges from outrage at May’s tone and unilateral demands to a gleeful Schadenfreude at what is seen as the way the UK government seems so intent on shooting itself in the foot.

“I want, I want, I want …” shouts a headline in the usually sober German political weekly, Der Spiegel. German Green Party MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht contributed a more emphatic “May: Go f**k yourself EU but please don’t let us down. Whine whine.”

Marcel Fratzscher, president of Germany’s economic institute, DIW, noted May’s threats. He commented that a hard Brexit was the worst possible solution economically and would set in motion the UK’s gradual economic decline. “Theresa May’s promise to turn Britain into a ‘global trading nation’ after Brexit is an illusion, just like Donald Trump’s promise to make America great again with the help of protectionist measures.”

A cultural gulf

One common theme stands out in the European commentary on May’s speech. Politicians, journalists and business leaders alike accuse her of being out of touch with reality. This shared perception has its roots in the world of difference that lies between Britain and European countries when it comes to political culture and the rules of political engagement.

In Britain, a government majority is an enabler, permitting the holder to run the country on government-opposition lines. The ruling party (usually only one) plays a zero-sum game with those left out of government – we win, you lose. In Europe, where most governments must be forged from a coalition of parties, a majority is a settlement constructed to include as many compatible interests as possible.

This difference carries over to questions of conduct over political communication: when to speak in public, how to frame demands, when and how to flag up the red lines beyond which no compromise can be agreed. In Europe, threatening to walk away before negotiations have even opened would not generally be considered a good opening gambit.

For Europeans, May’s proposal is unrealistic because it consists entirely of demands and ignores what Britain might have to give to persuade its European partners that it won’t get a better deal out of the EU than in it. This cultural divide dogged Britain’s eventful membership of the EU and led to mutual misunderstanding and resentment.

May’s speech embodies an archetypal UK government arrogance. By now, European leaders are familiar with the British bulldog approach and most are keen to underplay the drama. However, May’s failure to understand how to do business with Europeans bodes ill for a constructive negotiation process.

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