“Pfff,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, shrugging his shoulders dismissively.
That was how the European commission president replied to a journalist asking about Theresa May’s Brexit comments during her first European council meeting.
There was no special event, he added, and he was right.
The prime minister was given just five minutes to set out her view on Britain
’s exit from the EU
at 1am, after a six-hour session in which the European leaders ate pan-fried scallops, crown of lamb with roast figs, and iced vanilla parfait, while discussing the migration crisis and Russian
aggression in Syria
Her “clear message” that the UK was leaving the EU but would play a full role until that point was met with silence, before the group moved on to a short final discussion on housekeeping issues about how the summit is organised.
Juncker’s spluttered response may have been a momentary reaction to an issue he did not want to address; but more likely it was a deliberate attempt to offer broadcasters an enduring image of Britain being sidelined.
And it highlighted how for May the European council, like other events with her counterparts on the continent since the EU referendum, provided a somewhat awkward encounter.
EU summits are an unusual environment for leaders, as they haggle over texts during dinner meetings without back-up from their advisers.
But one government source said the Brexit decision had put May in “a very odd position” at the summit, far removed from the experience of her predecessors. “It is a very different personal experience from the one Cameron or Brown or Blair or Major had … She is on her way out and we are on our way out.”
And that is why, in Brussels, Brits feel increasingly like pariahs in the room.
Despite claims from other leaders that the UK would remain a full and involved member of the EU until article 50 is triggered, May’s own irritation at being cut out of a meeting of the other 27 leaders in Bratislava last month was quickly slapped down by European politicians.
Manfred Weber, leader of the Christian Democrats in the European parliament, said: “When somebody wants to leave a club, it is not normal that such a member wants to decide about the future of this club. That is really creating a lot of anger about the behaviour of the British government.”
The kindest interpretation of May’s short offering on Brexit is that Europe’s leaders have more important things to discuss as the migration crisis balloons and Russia’s actions in Syria demand a response.
Besides, what is there to discuss, ask diplomats on the fringes of the summit, given that Britain has not yet offered any proposals?
As the European parliament president, Martin Schulz, stressed in a speech to the 28 leaders, there is a “principle of no negotiation without notification” in the EU.
And yet there has been plenty of room for the French
president, François Hollande, to promise that Brexit negotiations would be “hard” and for his German
counterpart, Angela Merkel, to say it would be “rough”.
There was also space for European figures to push back against what they regard as an uncompromising speech at the Tory party conference. May’s promise that Britain will control immigration while keeping maximum economic access was given short shrift. “The fundamental freedoms are inseparable,” said Schulz.
But the Tory MEP leader, Syed Kamall, hit back, telling journalists in the huge media room of the Justus Lipsius building, headquarters of the European council, that it was just posturing.
No 10 sources stressed that May was a central part of discussions about the atrocities in Syria, working closely with her French and German counterparts.
Behind closed doors, she did receive a warmer welcome. With Taavi Rõivas, Estonia
’s prime minister, she discussed a strong defence relationship between the two countries. A source at No 10 claimed the leader even stressed that Brexit brought some opportunities.
With Klaus Iohannis, the president of Romania
, the focus was on cooperation on counter-terrorism. Both he and Rõivas insisted they wanted a close relationship with the UK, and May said her hope was to guarantee the rights of their citizens already in Britain, if the same could be promised for Britons in their countries.
But British officials are advising May to be cautious about what she can negotiate in bilateral meetings, which can be warm, informal and easy to misinterpret. National leaders often rely on the EU institutions to deliver tough messages on their red lines that they prefer not to deliver in a one-to-one chat.