Mrs. May, who wants to win an increased majority for her Conservative Party in the election she called only two years after the last one, is trying to turn critical weekend leaks in the European news media about her negotiating stance to her advantage. She is portraying herself as standing tall for Britain while Brussels and the other European Union members gang up against her.
And now she is accusing the Europeans of trying to manipulate the British election through leaks about a contentious dinner she hosted for the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, that went badly and showed Mrs. May in a poor light. But she seemed to be blaming the “bureaucrats in Brussels” more than the other heads of state and government who will have a vital say in any final deal, which must be unanimously agreed to by the other 27 member states of the European Union.
But with hostile language coming so soon, concerns are likely to deepen that the negotiations on Britain’s exit, or “Brexit,” will founder and that Britain will leave the bloc with no agreement on future relations. That would not only create immense uncertainty for business, currencies, airlines and ordinary citizens — both Europeans living and working in Britain and Britons living in other countries of the bloc — but would almost certainly be economically damaging.
Mr. Corbyn responded angrily to Mrs. May’s remarks, calling them electioneering. “By winding up the public confrontation with Brussels, the prime minister wants to wrap the Conservative Party in the Union Jack and distract attention from her government’s economic failure and rundown of our public services,” he said in a statement. “But Brexit is too important to be used as a political game in this election.”
But to be sure, the British exit — how it will be negotiated, by whom and with what aims and results — is central to this election.
Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats — the party that is most opposed to a British exit and wants Britons to vote again on any final deal — said as much on Tuesday: “This is a Brexit election and a chance to change the direction of Britain.”
On Sunday, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung gave an insider’s account of the first working dinner last Wednesday at Downing Street between Mrs. May and her team and Mr. Juncker and his. Clearly the result of a leak from the commission — Britons generally blame Mr. Juncker’s chief of cabinet, Martin Selmayr, a German — the report described Mr. Juncker’s astonishment at the gap between the sides and his view that the British and Mrs. May were living in “a different galaxy.”
Mr. Juncker was said to believe that Mrs. May did not understand the complexity of the task, the size of the “divorce settlement” Britain would have to pay or the European Union’s insistence that Britain negotiate a future relationship with the bloc only after the settlement was essentially completed.
Earlier on Wednesday in Brussels, the European Union’s chief negotiator for the exit, Michel Barnier, laid out detailed priorities for the two years of talks, warning London to address the concerns of millions of people about their residency and pension rights and repeating that the divorce bill had to be settled before talks could start on a future trade relationship.
Britain must “clear the accounts,” Mr. Barnier said, though the amount would have to be negotiated, and he refused to name a figure. But he listed obligations to the current budget, which runs past Britain’s exit, and commitments made to the European Investment Bank, European Central Bank and various aid funds. Britain would also be expected to pay its share of pension obligations and for the relocation of two European Union agencies currently housed in Britain.
Mr. Barnier said that the 3.2 million European Union citizens in Britain and 1.2 million Britons living in other countries in the bloc could not be left in legal limbo and needed the assurances of lifetime residency and access to health care, social security and pension rights guaranteed by the European Court of Justice — a court whose jurisdiction Britain wants to abandon as part of its exit.
The bloc has also emphasized the need to protect the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and to solve the problem of the post-exit border between Northern Ireland and Ireland “in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.”
Mr. Barnier acknowledged that “there are differing positions which emerged during the dinner” last week, which he attended, but he said he wanted to build an “entente cordiale” between Britain and the bloc.
A “shared passion” with Mrs. May for hiking and rambling in the mountains gave them a basis for good relations, he said. But, he added, “you also have to look out for accidents.”