Last week British Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in Austria for a European summit in Salzburg. One of its goals was to advance Brexit, confirming Britain's trade relations with its European neighbours, setting out new rules between the UK and its continental partners.
May's proposal to the EU came off the back of deep political infighting in her own party, with several high-profile resignations among cabinet members and Brexit negotiators, including former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. May's deal was supposed to represent the best chance of the UK satisfying those who wished to leave the bloc, as mandated by the referendum, and those who through two years of counter-campaigning hoped to salvage the closest possible ties to the EU.
The Salzburg summit was therefore billed as a make or break moment, both for the UK and the EU, with the hope of some compromise on the Irish border, movement of EU and UK citizens, customs arrangements, and the right of the UK to form global deals with other non-EU partners.
The EU also prides itself on principles of inclusivity, dignity, humanity and the promotion of strong inter-cultural bonds, as laid out in its founding principles.
But in fact the Salzburg summit resulted in what some commentators have called an "ambush", with a series of high-ranking European figures lining up to publicly humiliate the British premier in the most strident and uncompromising terms. This dispute then degenerated into a more squalid war of words through the media on both sides of the Channel.
Why should the EU, itself beset by problems of high unemployment, huge indebtedness in the southern members, and an immigration crisis fueling support for the far right across the bloc, seek so blatantly to break with diplomatic niceties and turn rarely seen hostility towards one of Europe's largest economies: a nation the bloc will still have to contend with, whether the UK remains a member of the union or not.
EU leaders did not merely dismiss the UK's proposal as "unworkable". Similar comments had been made before. But the tone of the dismissal demonstrated the EU's resolve not to consider any form of negotiation.
French President Macron stated “Brexit is the choice of the British people … pushed by those who predicted easy solutions … Those people are liars.” While EU President Donald Tusk tweeted a photo the British prime minister next to a table of cakes: suggesting the UK was trying to have its cake and eat it at negotiations; adding the comment "no cherries", again mocking the suggestion the UK could pick and choose (cherrypick) elements of the free-market to suit itself.
One unlikely voice in support of Theresa May in Salzburg was Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, himself in the dock and facing EU investigation over internal legal, media and funding reforms. In acknowledgement of UK MEPs voting to prevent the enquiry, he commented that France and Germany wanted Britain "to suffer".
The European press, taking its cue from the leaders in Salzburg, joined in the ironic attack on the UK and its premier.
The Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant said May had “stormed the European continent like a Don Quixote” and that Britain wanted to “keep playing footie and snacking at the canteen, without paying any subs, wearing the club strip or doing bar duty”; adding that Brexit would "send her population straight back to the Middle Ages”.
Spanish paper El Pais, said that since May took office in July 2016, her entire negotiating strategy had been “to postpone decision-making as much as possible...Like a bad student who puts off the moment to sit down and study, it’s now up to the UK to make up for lost time...Otherwise the historians of the future will be extremely hard on the current British political class”.
In France, Le Figaro said May had been “caught in the trap of her ‘it’s me or chaos’” strategy. The paper quoted French president, Emmanuel Macron, saying he had “perfectly summed up” the Europeans’ position on Brexit: it “is not acceptable because it does not respect the integrity of the single market … Leaving the EU cannot be done without costs or consequences.”
The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad said the EU was walking a tightrope because “British political drama is the greatest uncertainty around Brexit, and the horror scenario is that whatever is agreed with May proves worthless if she is replaced.”
The reasons for such a forthright refusal were clearly stated: there could be no compromise on the single market, pressure had to be put on May ahead of the party conference season in the UK, and progress had to be made on the issue of inter-Ireland trade. Behind the scenes, however, there is always the fear a successful Brexit could lead other members to leave the group.
After May returned to the UK refusing to back down and demanding greater respect from the EU, the British media joined in with more paper bullets.
The Sun showed a photo of French president and Tusk mocked up as Prohibition-era gangsters carrying tommy guns, under the headline “EU Dirty Rats – Euro mobsters ambush” May. Another edition had a photoshopped image of May standing on the white cliffs of Dover dressed in a union jack, giving a two-fingered salute across the Channel, with the caption "Up Eurs!"
Brexit was always going to be a difficult diplomatic process. But with many voices in the UK and Europe, both commercial and cultural, favouring strong ties after separation, it was surely not inevitable that relations would deteriorate to such a squalid, acrimonious, low farce played out unashamedly in public.
If the goal of negotiations was to end up with no deal, and both sides self-righteously claiming they had taken part in discussions in good faith, but that talks had collapsed because the other party was at fault, then all involved can claim a spectacular success. But such short-term passing of the buck is hardly the basis for fruitful cooperation in the future. The Salzburg snub could leave a long and poisonous legacy.