Britain and Europe Are Talking Past Each Other to the Bitter End

(Bloomberg) -- British Prime Minister Theresa May turned up at this week’s summit in the Austrian city of Salzburg expecting European Union leaders to be kind to her.

Since the prospects for an orderly Brexit deal will decline dramatically if May is toppled by her party’s pro-Brexit hardliners, EU diplomats had briefed ahead of time that they were keen to do their bit for “Operation Save Theresa.”

British officials were a bit put out therefore, when European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said a Brexit deal was “far away,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar saw no progress since March, and EU President Donald Tusk said her plans need to be “re-worked.”

The British may be famous for their insistence on understatement but on this occasion May’s team was expecting something a little more positive, according to people familiar with their reaction.

The straight-talking Europeans were also somewhat puzzled though.

“That was us being nice,” said one EU official. “We didn’t say her plan was dead.”

Diplomat in Shorts

The cultural divide between the casual, often monolingual British, and their formal, polyglot counterparts has plagued negotiations from the outset, when a U.K. diplomat turned up on a hot summer’s day to meet his smartly dressed counterpart in a pair of shorts.

The U.K.’s ability to bridge that divide was compromised when its ambassador to the EU, Ivan Rogers -- one official who did get Europe -- quit after falling out with May’s top advisers over his gloomy outlook. EU diplomats say that was the turning point, because they lost the only person they could really communicate with.

Instead of focusing on Tusk’s language about the Brexit plan needing an overhaul, the U.K. should be happy that he’d suggested there had been a “positive evolution” in British thinking, the EU official said.

What’s the Problem?

May’s own message fell flat later on Wednesday night when she appealed to her fellow leaders to help her break the deadlock over the Irish border.

“The onus is now on all of us,” she said.

Her 27 counterparts were disappointed that there was nothing they hadn’t heard before, according to three EU officials. One leader with a key role in the discussions said he still didn’t really understand why the European plan was a problem for May.

“It’s just some random checks of bar codes in company storage rooms,” he said.

For the British, those checks would mean their country is being split in two.

‘Tough Game’

And so the cycle goes on.

The British blame the EU for being intransigent and obsessed by rules and laugh at how Barnier can boil any issue down to a color-coded spreadsheet or a powerpoint. The Europeans accuse the U.K. contingent of skipping over details and improvising.

As the misunderstandings pile up, the frustration grows on both sides.

“Sometimes Theresa May and her staff, and also our side, will sometimes use tough communication,” Tusk told reporters at the end of the summit. “We shouldn’t hide this obvious truth that we are in the middle of really difficult negotiations, it means it’s also a tough game.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.