The EU has dismissed Theresa May’s Brexit speech as being more about Conservative party management than putting forward sensible solutions on trade, according to a damning internal document leaked to the Guardian.
The Brussels’ analysis of the prime minister’s address, issued to representatives of all 27 member states, described her intervention as “a change in tone, but not in substance”, warning that all the UK’s red lines remained.
And while it said the prime minister had promised clarity on Britain’s hopes for a future trading relationship, it branded the model she proposed as unworkable and “double cherry-picking”. It also claimed there had been “zero progress” when it came to ideas for customs cooperation.
“Like with PM May’s previous speeches, she addressed more her domestic audience, trying to bridge the gaps between the two poles of the debate on Brexit in the UK,” the paper concluded.
“While the speech was long on aspirations, it was short on workable solutions that would respect the EU27 principles.”
The document, drawn up by the Council of the European Union’s general secretariat, appears to be a “lines to take” paper to help secure a co-ordinated response the May in a bid to maintain a united position.
But emerging on the eve of the European council’s planned publication of guidelines for a post-Brexit trade deal, expected to be as short and general as possible, it could raise tensions between the EU and UK.
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the EU said it would not comment on leaks.
However, a Whitehall source slammed the document as a “highly misleading summary which was clearly prepared at pace, contains very poor analysis, and does not reflect the detailed conversations we are having with European partners”.
The document did list a series of positives from the prime minister’s speech, including accepting the trade-offs between sovereignty and market access, accepting that leaving the EU would inflict a cost on Britain and that crashing out on World Trade Organisation rules would be negative.
It called the tone “positive and measured” with an “explicit recognition of (some of) the negative impacts” of Brexit, but also:
- Claimed that May was overly inward looking, saying “her speech was more a domestic communication battle than proposing real substance and ways forward”.
- Described the model she wanted as “double cherry picking: taking in selective elements of EU membership and of third country trade agreements”.
- Said there was “no solution” proposed for the Irish border, criticising what it called the “mutually contradictory UK objectives” of no single market or customs union, no hard border in Ireland and no border down the Irish Sea.
- Outlined May’s determination to agree a transition period within the next fortnight “in spite of the remaining and substantive divergences at the negotiation table”.
The document also set out a question and answer section for the EU27 on the controversy surrounding the commission’s recent publication of a legal text of the withdrawal agreement. That infuriated the Conservatives because of a suggestion that Northern Ireland could remain in the customs union while the rest of the UK left it.
This latest document argued: “Creating a regulatory regime in Northern Ireland, which might be different from the rest of the UK does not undermine UK integrity or sovereignty either.”
A European commission source confirmed that the document was genuine, but called it an “initial analysis of the prime minister’s speech, which we will continue to analyse”, and stressed that discussions were ongoing.
Chris Leslie MP, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said: “The commission’s view that Theresa May is ‘double cherry picking’ shows how far the government has to go to present a credible negotiating position.
“The commission plainly see the prime minister’s speech in much the same way as many in Britain do, a means to satisfy internal party critics and not as a serious contribution to the negotiating process.”
He said the government needed to produce a “realistic and workable negotiating position” with just a year to go until the UK is due to formally leave the EU.
The document emerged after May and a number of senior cabinet ministers met with Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s chief Brexit representative, in Downing street for talks that were described by sources as very positive.
A No 10 spokesman said they had discussed citizens rights and that the prime minister had restated her “commitment to avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”.
Discussions with Amber Rudd, the home secretary, also touched on the future security relationship between the European bloc and Britain. The Brexit secretary, David Davis, told MPs in the EU scrutiny committee that Verhofstadt had received commitments that the post-Brexit registration system would be “administratively clean-cut, much more dependable and much more simple”.
Davis was also clear that while MPs in Britain would get a “meaningful vote” at the end of the Brexit process, it would not mean overruling the referendum.
Meanwhile, a senior EU diplomat involved in the drafting of Brussels’s position on trade with the UK said of the latest document: “These are the commission’s lines to take but are in line with what the member states have been arguing.
“Perhaps we have missed something in the speech and there are concessions in there that haven’t been spelled out – but we can’t see it at the moment. On Ireland, we are at square one again. There was nothing new.”
The leaked document reflects the frustration felt by the 27 member states and the European commission as they prepare to flesh out their own position on a future trade deal.
On Wednesday morning, the first draft of the EU’s guidelines, which are said to be “short and general”, will be sent to the member states ahead of a detailed discussion by diplomats in Brussels.
The European council president, during a visit to Luxembourg, will then address the press and spell out the limitations of any deal with the UK given the uncompromising nature of May’s red-lines. One senior EU source said: “Now reality will really hit.”