The battle lines over which Brexit will be fought became clearer this week in the fallout from Jean-Claude Juncker’s ‘disastrous’ visit to London, including reports that the Brexit divorce bill could be as high as €100 billion. The controversy was kicked off by a report in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) about the European Commission President’s meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, which quoted Jean-Claude Juncker as saying “I’m leaving Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before.”
May was also described as ‘deluded’ and ‘living in another galaxy’ with regards to her expectations of what the Brexit negotiations and outcome would look like. The main points of contention, according to FAZ, centred on May’s wanting to deal with the issue of guaranteeing expats’ rights in a single European Council meeting in June, with Juncker taken aback by how much she seemed to underestimate the complexity of the situation. Juncker also had to remind May again that the negotiations for a trade deal between Britain and the EU 27 can not begin until the Brexit process is complete in 2019 at the earliest.
The next day, after reportedly being briefed by Juncker on the difficult talks the night before, German Chancellor Angela Merkel felt compelled to restate the arguments that Juncker had made in London adding that she needed to do so “very clearly, [as] I have the impression that a few British are deluding themselves”.
While the prime minister dismissed the report as “Brussels gossip” it did elicit a notable hardening of the British stance in response, with May quoted on the BBC as saying she would live up to her reputation as being a ‘bloody difficult woman’ during the negotiations which are slated to begin after the British elections in June. Tensions were ratcheted up further when the Financial Times estimated that the cost to Britain of leaving the EU could reach €100 billion. The estimate was based on a more detailed draft of Michel Barnier’s mandate as the EU’s Brexit negotiator. After Britain’s rebates and other dues are discounted the FT estimated the final bill as being between €55-75 billion, which is closer to the initial estimate of €60 billion. However it still includes politically unpalatable payments such as continued support for European farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy – until the end of the current budget in 2020 – as well as pension payments for former EU officials. Given that some on the back benches of the British government think that the UK doesn’t owe Europe a penny, both sides are expecting turbulence ahead.