Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, has of course played into Theresa May’s hands. He let his staff leak a thoroughly disparaging account of a dinner she gave for him at Downing Street to a German conservative newspaper.
Juncker reportedly rang German chancellor Angela Merkel afterwards, saying that May was “living in another galaxy”. Merkel then publicly denounced British “illusions” in the benefits of Brexit.
May reacted with a speech outside Downing Street accusing the European Union (EU) of meddling in the British general election. She appealed to voters to “give me your backing to fight for Britain”.
The entire episode was very helpful to May’s election strategy, which is to brand the Tories under her leadership as the party of Brexit.
As we saw in last week’s local elections, this has already tipped many former Ukip voters her way. But May’s bigger play is for Labour supporters who voted to leave the EU in the referendum last June.
We’ll see soon enough whether this strategy has worked. But even a big Tory win won’t alter the fact that May will probably find herself in a very hard place in the Brexit negotiations with the rest of the EU.
Britain is at an inherent disadvantage. Having triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, it will automatically be out of the EU on 29 March 2019, whether or not an agreement has been reached.
The banks and transnational corporations based in Britain would suddenly face much worse access to the European market if there were no agreement.
The EU is a thoroughly opaque and undemocratic set of institutions divided between conflicting interests. But it looks as if those of its leaders who still want to turn the EU into a federation want either no agreement or one that is very unfavourable to Britain.
The commentator Wolfgang Munchau says the dinner leak indicates that “the commission is trying to sabotage the process, not very intelligently”.
Juncker is indeed a buffoon. His main claim to fame is his efforts as prime minister of Luxembourg to turn it into a tax haven.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has tried to calm things down, and implicitly criticised Juncker. But the pressures on the 27 other member states to maintain a common front against Britain are strong. Faced with the threat of disintegration thanks to the crises over the euro and refugees along with the growth of anti-EU parties, they have an incentive to show that leaving the EU has a high price.
Indeed, what the Juncker leak suggests is that Britain is going to face many of the bullying tactics that were used against the left wing Syriza government in Greece in 2015 when it tried to negotiate a reduction in the country’s debt burden.
Yanis Varoufakis, Greek finance minister till Syriza’s capitulation to the EU in July 2015, has just published a book about the experience called Adults in the Room. He told the Times newspaper last week, “There will be no negotiations [between the EU and Britain], make no mistake.”
Of course, Britain is a far more powerful state than Greece. It is nuclear armed, a member of the United Nations Security Council, presiding over the biggest international financial centre and what is still a relatively strong economy. And because Britain never joined the euro, the EU can’t do what the European Central Bank did to Greece and shut down its banking system.
There are also powerful economic interests, notably in Germany, that do want an amicable Brexit settlement.
But the imbalance between the two sides remains. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier pointedly said last week that the “clock was ticking”.
One theory why May called an election now is that a big majority will allow her to take compromises with the EU to keep access to the European market.
But by campaigning against the EU she may create expectations in the Tory party that she will find hard to control.