Thirty-five years ago, I spoke reasonable German, having laboured in Bonn for the Guardian and Observer. Today, most of what passed for my fluency has gone, so it was with help from Herr Professor Google that I waded through the report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine by the paper’s political editor Thomas Gutschker in which Theresa May was characterised as weak, desperate and needy during her dinner in Brussels with European Commission President Jean-Claude-Junker.
The meal was generally reported to have gone well, leading to a more constructive approach by EU leaders at the subsequent meeting of the European Council. But then, at the weekend, the FAZ dropped a bomb into the discourse, depicting the Prime Minister as a pathetic supplicant, begging for her political life.
At Westminster, the outrage was as immediate as it was predictable. How dare these foreign johnnies, Juncker in particular, say such things about Mrs May? They were cads. Juncker was a bounder. As for the PM herself, if the reports were true, she was guilty of an act of betrayal that (though no one actually said it) smacked of Chamberlain and Munich.
So let’s calm down a little and consider what Gutschker actually wrote. Having introduced the subject, and filled in the background, including the fact that after a previous dinner with Mrs May, in Downing Street, Juncker had subsequently proved less than discrete, he went on:
Earlier this week, May and Juncker met again for dinner, this time in Brussels. But now everything was quite different. May made no demands. Rather, she begged for help. She talked about the risks she had taken when she recently gave up the pursuit of a hard Brexit and asked for a transitional period of two years, during which everything would continue much as before. She recalled that she had also moved on the delicate issue of finances. And she let them see that her friends and enemies were sitting right behind her, waiting for her to fall. She said she had no more room for manouevre and that the Europeans would have to give her the necessary space.
Theresa May seemed anxious to the President of the Commission, despondent and discouraged – a woman who hardly dared confront anybody but was not yet ready to give up. May’s facial expressions and their appearance spoke volumes. Thus Juncker later described it to his colleagues. Everyone can see this: The Prime Minister is drawn as a result of the struggle with her own party. She wears deep rings under her eyes. She looks like someone who does not sleep at night. Only rarely are her laughlines visible, usually for the photographers. But she looks tormented. Previously, May could literally pour out laughter, her whole body vibrated. Now she strains to the utmost to avoid losing her temper.
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At the last minute, May asked Juncker for the appointment. Before that, she telephoned Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron. ‘Charm offensive’ is the usual term, but that does not fit here. These were calls for help. May knew that the heads of state and government were not ready to certify “sufficient progress” in the negotiations at the end of the week. This blocked the way to the second phase of the negotiations, where the future [trade deal] lay. The Prime Minister wanted at least to pave the way for a move: could the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier not be given a mandate for talks about the transitional phase after she left the room?
In my view, speaking as an old hack, Gutschker exaggerated a lot of this. Not in the sense that he wrote lies, but in the way he reported what he had learned, putting his own Sunday gloss on a smattering of verifiable facts.
It is highly likely that Juncker told colleagues that the Prime Minister had seemed to him to be under strain during their dinner – as how could she not be given the political climate at home and the fact that this was a key encounter in the lead-up to the summit? But when Gutsckher added “Everyone can see this,” was he quoting Juncker or – much more likely – was he putting his own spin on events as he imagined them? He goes on to talk about the problems the PM has within the Tory Party and how she looks when confronted by snappers – something he as a journalist would notice. This is Gutschker talking, not, Juncker. For once, the little Luxemburger is telling the truth when he says he was not seeking to disparage the Prime Minister. After all, if she goes down in flames, he goes with her – the Commission chief who backed Britain into a No-Deal Brexit.
It is much the same when Gutschker goes on to describe how Mrs May telephoned Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in advance of the summit. “These were calls for help,” he writes, and he may very well be right. But the conclusion is his, not Juncker’s.
I would put money on the fact that Gutschker spoke for a couple of minutes with a senior Commission official – probably German – who recounted that his boss, the Commission President, had noticed how tired the PM looked as she tried to obtain a positive result for Britain at the end of a difficult period of negotiation. Well, who would have thunk it? The official may even have mentioned the bags under Mrs May’s eyes, which in truth are always there. And that, in all likelihood, was that. Period. The rest was a Sunday journalist making the most of a snippet of second-hand gossip.
Did Mrs May ask Juncker for help? Probably. Was that sensible after so many recent setbacks? Yes. Did she ask the leaders of France and Germany to take into account her difficulties at home? Of course. Why would she not? Negotiations are not just about substance, they are also about tone and sensibility. And if she did seek their help, it worked. The 27 were markedly more conciliatory this time round and appeared ready (almost) to open the door to trade talks early in the New Year, depending on Britain’s willingness to come up with more cash.
This is how deals are done. Sometimes showing a weak hand can produce surprising results.