EU officials 'believe Britain will give up on Brexit if they make negotiations tough enough'
Senior figures in the EU believe that Britain will give up on Brexit if they make negotiations as tough as possible, The Telegraph understands.
British officials are fighting to stop Europe adopting a no-compromise position in talks in the hope that the UK will change its mind about leaving the bloc.
This belief is fuelling the hardline message on issues like freedom of movement that have emerged from Berlin, Paris and Brussels in recent weeks.
More than five senior EU figures interviewed by The Telegraph this week expressed doubts that Britain would go through with Brexit when confronted by the “reality of the bureaucratic nightmare” and the “insane act of economic self-harm”, as they referred to Brexit.
One senior British official involved in the set-up for the coming negotiations said the EU elite “seem to think the game is to make us change our minds”.
This stance has left representatives fighting to explain to European leaders how “dangerous” a game they were playing, and how “unlikely” it was to succeed.
A second UK official source with knowledge of the talks added there was a danger that positions in the Brexit talks were already becoming “dangerously entrenched”, even before Theresa May invokes Article 50 that will open formal EU-UK "divorce" proceedings.
The sense that battle lines are hardening across Europe came as the 27 EU leaders prepared for a summit on Friday in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, designed to demonstrate unity and a determination to forge ahead with a European future without Britain.
The toughening mood was darkly hinted at by Donald Tusk, the European Council president, in a nine-point letter urging EU leaders to use the Bratislava summit to restore citizens' fading faith in the European Union.
In a thinly veiled appeal to make sure Britain was left demonstrably worse-off by Brexit, Mr Tusk insisted that the 27 should resolutely “stick to the Treaty” on issues like free movement.
“If we do so, there will be no room for doubt that it is a good thing to be a member of the Union,” he wrote.
The EU’s choice of lead negotiators – the French finance expert Michel Barnier, for the European Commission and Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and arch-ferderalist, for the Parliament – has also been taken as a clear sign of the EU’s determination to drive a hard bargain.
The appointments were described on Thursday as "very, very tough" by Herman van Rumpuy, the former European Council president, who warned that negotiations would be “difficult” for Britain.
In the European Parliament, which must ratify any Article 50 deal agreed by the EU 27, the mood against Britain was further soured this week by personal attacks on Mr Verhofstadt by former Ukip leader Nigel Farage and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis.
Mr Davis was reported to have referred to his future interlocutor as “Satan” when addressing the Foreign Affairs select committee, while Mr Farage – long a thorn in the side of pro-EU MEPs – lambasted Mr Verhofstadt as a “fanatic” whose appointment amounted to “declaring war” in the coming talks.
Mr Davis's office subsequently clarified the "Satan" remark, saying that the Secretary of State had been jokingly declining the committee's chairman's invitation to be rude about comments made by Mr Verhostadt, but the distinction was lost in Strasbourg.
“Perhaps there was a time when this could not have got nasty,” said one source close to Mr Verhofstadt, “but when the Brexit minister calls the chief negotiator ‘Satan’ what response, really, does Britain expect?”
Those sentiments were echoed by Burkhard Balz, a German MEP whose leading role on the European Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee makes him influential on financial services regulation. He said Britain must not underestimate the determination of the rest of Europe to deprive the UK of its EU financial passporting rights and euro clearing.
He also warned Europe would accept economic pain to defend its core principles and that the belief among Brexiters that the demands of German and French exporters could substantially soften terms was overblown.
“This summer I travelled all over Germany, and the main reason was to talk about Brexit. Every time, in every place, the biggest round of applause was when I said the ‘the time of cherry-picking and rebates is over’. That is how the German people feel about the situation,” he told The Telegraph.