Jean-Claude Juncker is the European Union made flesh. This is partly his job. As President of the European Commission, which is described as the only EU organisation "that is paid to think European", he represents the sovereign spirit of the EU's 28 member states rather than its disparate parts. It is also a question of biography: Juncker is the "last man standing" of those present at the creation of the modern EU, and has been ensconced in European politics for 30 years. Although he has overseen the Commission and the EU at its most ruthless – like the dispossession of Greece during the Eurozone crisis – he is considered in diplomatic and political circles to be a collegial, affable figure.
This makes it all the more surprising that his meeting with Theresa May at 10 Downing Street last Wednesday, which was held over dinner, quickly turned bitter; Juncker is usually the man in the room who defuses the tension. Leaving Downing Street, he told reporters that the meeting was "constructive". Those who suspected his choice of words was euphemistic were proved right when the German newspaper Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung published a different account of the dinner, leaked to them from Juncker's circle. According to FAZ, the meeting had all the qualities of a political drama: threats, mutual misunderstanding, bathos. Future historians studying the decline of Europe will likely pore over the dinner's details, discovering a story of British hubris pitted against Continental resolve.
So, what went down?
It Started Badly
The Prime Minister started by telling Juncker that she wanted to discuss things other than Brexit; Juncker asked… like what? The Prime Minister didn't have anything in mind. Accordingly, Juncker brought up something tangentially related to Brexit. May's government had announced on Monday that it was refusing to sign the EU's mid-term budget review, which needs unanimous consent from member states to go through, citing the general election. Juncker asked what was up with that – May said that election purdah rules prevent the government from doing anything right now.
Juncker wasn't convinced: if May were so concerned about purdah, she wouldn't be trying to agree significant conditions of the Brexit negotiations – "rooms, participants, schedules etc." – with him now (since, technically, she could be out of the job on the 9th of June).
In EU circles, the government's decision to not sign the budget is being read as a "preliminary skirmish" to the negotiations, a way of trying to show its leverage. So far, so awkward – they hadn't even sat down for dinner yet.
May Doesn't Understand the Magnitude of Brexit
Over starters, May suggested the question of EU citizens' rights living in the UK and vice-versa could be settled "during the next European Council meeting at the end of June". The Europeans were astonished. That's just two weeks after the general election, giving no time whatsoever to sort out questions like whether European citizens in the UK will be guaranteed healthcare, like they are now.
In the most dramatic gesture of the evening, Juncker took out two documents from his briefcase – the EU's accession agreement with Croatia and the recently signed free trade deal with Canada. Each was several thousands pages long, weighing about six kilograms. Brexit, if it's done properly, would inevitably result in a document of a similar stature. "I think you are underestimating this, Theresa," he said.
May Doesn't Understand That Brexit Is Without Precedent
Protocol 36 – the "opt-out" that Britain secured from the EU in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty over EU legislation related to justice and home affairs – was one of the most generous concessions the EU had ever given to a member state. It was basically a symbolic concession designed to appease Eurosceptics and show that London, not Brussels, was in charge of British laws. Couldn't Brexit be similar, May suggested?
No. From the Commission's point of view, there's no way that Brexit can be similar: it would encourage other member states to think of European policies and legislation as an à la carte menu, rather than as binding obligations.
It was at this point, halfway through the dinner, that Juncker said, "The more I hear, the more sceptical I become."
"Brexit cannot be a success"
The Divorce Bill Is Going to Be Messy
The so-called "divorce bill" will be one of the most contentious issues during negotiations. The EU will be left with a funding shortfall when Britain leaves and other member states are determined not to pay a penny of their own money to make up for it.
May allegedly argued that Britain isn't obliged to pay the EU anything when it leaves, because none of the EU's relevant treaties mention a leaving bill. The Brexit Minister, David Davis, chimed in to say that the EU wouldn't have a legal ground to demand payment because Britain would have left the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Juncker said, "Fine". But if Britain plays hard ball on the bill, why would the EU want to be nice when it comes to to negotiating a free trade bill?
May's Platitudes Didn't Go Down Well
May regaled her guests with the banalities we're all used to hearing from her speeches, talking about an "Open Britain" that's tied closely to the single market, but doesn't have to accept its freedom of movement.
"Let us make Brexit a success," she implored Juncker.
"Brexit cannot be a success," he replied.
It Ended Badly
After dinner, Juncker reportedly left with the worrying declaration: "I leave Downing Street ten times more sceptical than I was before." The next day at 7AM, he phoned Angela Merkel to tell her that Theresa May was "living in another galaxy". Merkel quickly worked the information into a speech she was planned to give that day at the German parliament, saying the now famous words, "I have the feeling that some people in Great Britain are living as if in an illusion."
This, in turn, prompted Theresa May to accuse the EU's member states of "lining up to oppose" Britain at a Conservative election rally. This was not long after she claimed the EU was "ganging up" against her (it's almost as if they are in some sort of union…) Expect more of this depthless shadow-boxing over the coming months. It's easier to fight illusions than the real thing.