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Memories of 1908

Memories of 1908

Wounded pride in Downing Street

by David Marsh in London

Fri 5 May 2017

Readers with an interest in history may recall the 1908 Daily Telegraph affair. There could be useful comparisons with the account that appeared in last Sunday’s edition of Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper about the 26 April Downing Street dinner between Theresa May, British prime minister, and Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president.

The occasion a century ago was an unbridled, unedited interview that Kaiser Wilhelm II gave to the British newspaper at a time of rising geopolitical tension between Britain and Germany that ultimately led – despite deep-seated royal family blood ties – to the first world war. The Kaiser’s remarks – in which he declared his undying friendship to his island neighbour but said, among many other things, ‘You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares’ – shows some superficial resemblance to the breakdown of understanding between May and Juncker.

‘My heart is set upon peace... Falsehood and prevarication are alien to my nature,’ Wilhelm told the Telegraph’s readers. ‘My actions ought to speak for themselves, but you listen not to them but to those who misinterpret and distort them.’

Rather like the Kaiser’s interview, it would have been better if the indiscretions in the normally staid columns of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung had been left unpublished. The account, stemming from a Brussels leak widely attributed to Martin Selmayr, Juncker’s German chief of staff, looks likely to be misused for propaganda by both sides.

May has accused Juncker of intruding into the British election campaign – but seems to be enjoying burnishing her popular image as a woman who will be ‘bloody difficult’ in negotiating with the rest of Europe. Juncker, an old European hand with some admirers but many detractors, may not have done his homework too well in preparing for the dinner. He seems, like Kaiser Wilhelm 109 years ago, to be parading, somewhat hubristically, his feelings of wounded pride.

May invited Juncker to try to stamp personal authority on the negotiations for the UK’s departure from the European Union. She did this knowing that Donald Tusk, the European Council president, whom she hosted for a less abrasive Downing Street encounter last month, is the real power in the EU negotiations. And she knew too that Juncker, no doubt still irritated by the UK’s opposition in 2014 to his nomination as Commission chief, might well have been planning to use the encounter to settle personal scores.

Exactly how the leak came about is immaterial. Juncker appears to have overreached himself. Dinners in Downing Street are supposed to be kept confidential. Juncker and everyone else realise that tantrums and acrimony are inevitable especially at the beginning of the exit process. The two sides are pre-programmed to be poles apart on some key issues. As I wrote on 4 April, the UK has to try to prove that a non-EU future will be brighter. The other 27 EU members must show that the British will be poorer and unhappier, so as to promote EU27 solidarity and prevent defections and disintegration.

Juncker appears unafraid to demonstrate his own lack of negotiating empathy. According to the German newspaper, he emerged from the dinner 10 times more sceptical about a positive outcome to the negotiations than when he arrived. That seems a very large gap between expectation and reality. The British may indeed not understand too much about Brussels psychology. It is surprising that Juncker is so surprised. He either receives very poor briefings, or doesn’t heed advice his officials are giving him.

David Marsh is Managing Director of OMFIF.

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