On Monday (1 May), Theresa May delivered a speech on “strong and stable leadership” to Conservative party members in Mawdesley, Ormskirk. May, who is is currently embarking on a six-week campaign, described by senior Conservatives as “ruthlessly disciplined,” is also trying to juggle Brexit, as relationships with the EU are increasingly becoming thornier. 

The view from the EU

On Saturday, EU leaders met at a special summit in Brussels where they agreed on taking a tough stance in their negotiating guidelines for Brexit talks with the UK. Accepting Donald Tusk’s guidelines in a record time of 15 minutes, the leaders of 27 EU countries decided that the UK would have to deal with key issues, such as citizens’ rights, the €60bn (£51bn) divorce bill and the Irish border before any trade talks can commence.  The EU leaders were pessimistic about the possibility of striking a deal in the next two years, but remained united in their conviction that Britain would negotiate with a unified block and not with individual countries. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said that Britain’s chances of a deal would increase if the EU is unified: “This extraordinary meeting shows the unity of the 27 on a clear line, but this unity is not directed against Britain, I think that it is also in its interest.”

But, François Hollande, highlighted that, “There will inevitably be a price and a cost for Britain, it’s the choice they made. We must not be punitive, but at the same time it’s clear that Europe knows how to defend its interests, and that Britain will have a less good position outside the EU than in the EU.”

Theresa May, however, wasn’t backing down very easily and, a few hours after the summit, she said that it is possible to discuss both the terms of exiting but also those regarding a future relationship with the EU. She said: “Yes, they do want to start some discussions about money. I’m very clear that at the end of the negotiation we need to be clear not just about the exit but also what our future relationship is going to be. The EU has also said nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. I want to ensure we agree on a trade deal and our withdrawal arrangements so we know what both of those are when we leave.”

It appears that both sides are at this point firm in their positions, but negotiations have not yet started and how they will progress remains questionable. The EU would definitely offer a deal that is less favourable than the membership the UK enjoyed up till now. The EU commission president Jean Claude-Juncker believes that the chances of talks failing are over 50%.

An indigestible dinner

Whether it’s “Brussels gossip” as Theresa May argues, or indeed a devastating experience, the dinner she had with Jean-Claude Juncker left a bitter after taste in the mouths of Brexiteers. The EU negotiating team warned Theresa May that a future deal would not even be discussed if the UK doesn't agree on citizens’ rights and settle its accounts, including the estimated €60bn divorce bill. The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung reported that Juncker’s last words were: “I’m leaving Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before.” Juncker told the German chancellor Angela Merkel, that May was “on a different galaxy.” While May invited Juncker to agree with her by saying “Let us make Brexit a success,” he replied: “Brexit cannot be a success.”

Strong and Stable

As the election campaign is progressing, May has utilised the “strong and stable leadership” expression “more often than any sane person could want to hear it,” the Guardian reported.

The phrase, which comprises of May’s favourite words like stable and strong, became an immediate joke for political commentators, especially Guardian journalists who created a bingo card for readers to play at home, consisting of her stock phrases. Yes, you guessed right: “strong and “stable.”

But Theresa May also used the phrase to highlight the importance of a strong leader when dealing with the Brexit negotiations. She said: “But it also shows that actually at times these negotiations are going to be tough. And in order to get the best deal for Britain we need to ensure that we’ve got that strong and stable leadership going into those negotiations.”

May’s recycling of “strong and stable leadership” wasn’t only ridiculed by newspapers, but also criticised by the Left who described her “megaphone” rhetoric as damaging for the negotiations. Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said that Juncker’s disappointment in May’s attitude shows the need to change tactics: “Unless we change tack quickly and adopt a more constructive approach, the weaker our negotiating hand will become.”

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: “This government is showing dangerous levels of complacency over an issue that will define our country for generations.”

For Juncker, the UK has a simplistic view of Brexit: “I have the impression sometimes that our British friends, not all of them, do underestimate the technical difficulties we have to face.” 

Nonetheless, according to Theresa May, "what Britain needs is a strong and stable leadership". It wasn’t just the journalists, but also European leaders who appeared to be mocking May’s slogan. Guy Verhofstadt, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, tweeted: "Any #Brexit deal requires a strong & stable understanding of the complex issues involved. The clock is ticking - it's time to get real." Sooner or later, May will need to show strong and stable leadership, since the EU will continue to exhibit a strong and stable position on Brexit.