BRUSSELS –As British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her departure with a Brexit plan nowhere near success, European Union leaders offered kind words. But it was quite another matter during the years of negotiations with the bloc that often produced exasperation, miscommunication and even some ridicule of her.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose office led the Brexit negotiations, on Friday called May “a woman of courage for whom he has great respect,” saying he watched her resignation speech “without personal joy.”
And Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said: “I just want to express my full respect for Theresa May and for her determination.”
But they expressed plenty of frustration during the rocky ride that May engineered over nearly three years that saw good relations go sour.
After the U.K.’s 2016 referendum in which voters decided to leave the EU, officials in Europe complained that May waited almost a year to begin the negotiations and that her team was ill-prepared for the task and later turned on her after failing to make progress. They were dismayed after she called a general election in June 2017 to bolster her Conservative Party’s numbers to help the negotiations, only to lose its majority and weaken her government. That made her beholden to special Northern Ireland interests that complicated the talks.
Perhaps the lowest point came in September 2018 at Salzburg Castle when EU president Donald Tusk publicly mocked her for being too greedy in the negotiations.
“A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries,” Tusk wrote in an Instagram photo of him offering May a dessert tray. It was a withering, undiplomatic jibe that accused her of cherry-picking the best parts of EU legislation while discarding what she disliked.
Two months after Salzburg, May somehow agreed to a withdrawal agreement that included enough guarantees for Ireland that all 27 member states could live with it.
In December, May apparently misinterpreted a comment by Juncker at an EU summit in Brussels and tempers frayed. She confronted him, seething, “What did you call me? You called me ‘nebulous?'”
Juncker was seen shaking his head, apparently replying: “No I didn’t.”
But then came the shock for Europe that May could not sell the deal to her own Conservative Party, failing three times to get it through Parliament.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, while saying he respected May but not British politics, compared her to the hapless Black Knight in a Monty Python sketch. The knight has both arms and legs cut off, but still refuses to surrender and tells his opponent to call it a draw.
On Friday, May announced that she will step down as Conservative Party leader June 7, which will trigger a contest to choose a successor who will try to complete Brexit as the next British prime minister.
After her speech, Rutte didn’t mention the Black Knight but instead expressed his “thanks and respect for Theresa May.”
He did add however that “the deal between the EU and the United Kingdom for an orderly Brexit remains on the table.”
EU leaders could soon look back longingly at the May era.
One possible successor, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in 2016 compared the EU’s aims to those of Adolf Hitler, arguing the bloc was trying to create a superstate that mirrors the attempt of the Nazi leader to dominate the European continent. At the time, Tusk called the comment “absurd.”
Barnier, the EU negotiator, refused to contemplate what the future would hold if Johnson or any other pro-Brexit politician became the next prime minister.
“What could happen now? Let me just clearly say here in Brussels that it is for the U.K. to decide. Nobody else.” he said.
If a new prime minister withdraws Britain from the EU without an orderly transition plan, there could be high economic costs for all involved.
“It now means we enter a new phase when it comes to Brexit and a phase that may be a very dangerous one,” said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
“Whatever happens, we are going to hold our nerve,” Varadkar said.