LONDON — Britain and the European Union say they want an amicable divorce. But negotiations have not even started yet, and the sniping has already begun.
Prime Minister Theresa May vowed Tuesday to be a "bloody difficult woman" in talks with the bloc, after EU officials accused the U.K. of failing to grasp the complexity of the task ahead.
European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt, a master of the pointed political tweet, posted: "Any Brexit deal requires a strong & stable understanding of the complex issues involved. The clock is ticking — it's time to get real."
Verhofstadt chose his words carefully: "Strong and stable" is May's campaign slogan as she seeks to win a bigger parliamentary majority in Britain's June 8 election.
Formal Brexit negotiations won't start until after the U.K. election next month. But already warm words from London and Brussels about partnership and friendship have given way to a steady drip of leaks, spin and barbed comments — evidence that the two sides' expectations are poles apart.
Last week, May met European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for a working dinner, greeting him with a kiss at the door of 10 Downing St.
May's office said afterward that the meeting had been constructive. Juncker called it "excellent," though he noted: "I have the impression sometimes that our British friends ... underestimate the technical difficulties we have to face."
A far less diplomatic account was published by Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper. Its report on the meeting, credited to anonymous Commission sources, quoted Juncker as saying he left the dinner "10 times more skeptical than I was before" that negotiations will succeed.
Downing St. said it "does not recognize" the paper's description of the meeting, and May dismissed the report as "Brussels gossip."
May told the BBC on Tuesday that she was well prepared to stand up to hard bargaining from Brussels.
"During the Conservative Party leadership campaign I was described by one of my colleagues as a 'bloody difficult woman,'" she said. "And I said at the time, the next person to find that out will be Jean-Claude Juncker."
Asked whether Juncker had found it out yet, May changed the subject.
The German report drew a furious flurry of reaction from both sides of Britain's EU divide. "May's outrage at EU's dirty tricks," said the Euroskeptic tabloid Daily Express. "Brussels twists knife on Brexit," was the front-page headline on London's more pro-EU Evening Standard.
Whether the leak is accurate or exaggerated, it's a sign the EU wants to let Britain know who is in the Brexit driving seat.
"What makes the leak so powerful is that it confirms what a lot of people have been thinking," said Fredrik Erixon, director of Brussels-based think tank the European Centre for Political Economy.
He said that many in Brussels believe Britain has an unrealistic expectation that it can retain much of its current access to the EU's single market once it leaves the bloc.
"The type of agreement many people in London think is possible is simply not going to be possible," Erixon said.
In a pointed show of unity, on Saturday, the 27 EU leaders adopted common negotiating principles for Brexit. They stressed that there will be no discussion of a future trade deal with Britain until major progress has been made on key issues, including the rights of EU citizens living in Britain (and Britons living elsewhere in the bloc), and the bill that Britain must pay to settle its commitments to the EU.
Britain has long insisted that talks on the divorce agreement and the future relationship can run side by side.
There's an even more profound difference between Britain and the bloc about what a good Brexit deal will look like. May says she wants "make a success" of Brexit, and is asking British voters to back her Conservative Party at the ballot box on June 8 and strengthen Britain's hand.
In Tuesday's Western Morning News, May wrote that Britain needs unity of purpose to "get a deal that works in Britain's national interest."
But it is in the EU's interest for the deal to leave Britain worse off than it was before, to emphasize the strength of the EU and deter other countries from following the U.K. out the door.
"There is always a price, a cost, a consequence from quitting the Union," French President Francois Hollande said after the EU leaders' summit.
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