The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Theresa May never threatened a no-deal exit during more than two years of negotiations with Brussels, confirming accusations from Brexiters that the prime minister was never truly prepared to walk away from talks.
Mr Barnier said Mrs May and her team “knew from the very beginning that we’ve never been impressed by such a threat. It’s not useful to use it.”
The remarks were made to the BBC’s Panorama programme in May, before the start of a Conservative leadership contest in which Boris Johnson has emerged as odds-on favourite to become Britain’s next prime minister.
Mr Johnson has campaigned on a pledge to take the UK out of the EU without a deal on October 31 unless Brussels agrees to rewrite the withdrawal treaty it negotiated with Mrs May. His rival for the leadership, Jeremy Hunt, has warned that Mr Johnson could “botch” Brexit, plunging the Conservatives into a general election in October.
Mr Barnier’s remarks show that Mrs May’s public insistence during her leadership that “no deal is better than a bad deal” was never reflected in her negotiating strategy.
He also warned Mr Johnson that he will receive a firm rebuff from the EU if he follows through with his plan to rip up the existing deal and demand that Brussels offers him better terms.
The current 585-page withdrawal agreement is “the only way to leave the EU in an orderly manner”, Mr Barnier said, noting it addressed all the “points of uncertainty” created by Brexit.
Mr Johnson has insisted that “backstop” plans for preventing a hard Irish border on the island of Ireland must be dropped, and has threatened to withhold Britain’s £39bn divorce bill as leverage. He insists that the EU will bend if it is thoroughly convinced that the UK is prepared to walk away without a deal.
Mr Johnson’s plans have been met with bewilderment bordering on derision in EU capitals, where there is increasing resignation that Britain is sliding towards a no-deal exit.
“All these ideas might fly in a fantasy world. In real world terms they mean no-deal with all its devastating consequences,” said one EU diplomat this week. “If that’s what Britain wants it’ll get it. If not, a future prime minister needs to look reality in the eye and act accordingly.”
Brussels has also been clear that a no-deal outcome would not deliver any advantage to Britain in the negotiations: the EU would insist on payment of the divorce bill, protection of citizens’ rights and a responsible approach to the Irish border before engaging in trade talks.
“Even in a no-deal scenario, Britain would probably want to negotiate a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU, its biggest trading partner,” the EU diplomat said. “So what’s the point in risking a no-deal if you plan to come back to the negotiation table anyway?”
The BBC interviews also reveal the disbelief of EU officials at Britain’s lack of a negotiating strategy.
Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice-president, said that former Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of engagement in negotiations and “grandstanding elsewhere” made him realise: “Oh my god, they don’t have a plan.”
“That was really shocking, frankly,” Mr Timmermans said, likening it to the television series Dad’s Army. “It’s like Lance Corporal Jones, you know: ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic.’ Running around like idiots.”
In another interview, David Lidington, Mrs May’s de facto deputy, said that the EU’s most powerful civil servant had suggested freezing the Brexit process for five years to allow time for broader discussions on reforming the bloc.
Mr Lidington said that Martin Selmayr, the EU commission’s secretary-general, suggested the pause would provide time for “a new deal for Europe’ to emerge.
The comments appear to reflect suggestions by French president Emmanuel Macron, early on in his mandate, that a fundamental reform of the EU might offer a solution for Brexit.