LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May made an explosive charge Wednesday that European Union officials are meddling in Britain’s June election as tensions escalated over looming talks about British withdrawal from the European Union.
Speaking outside her Downing Street offices, the British leader accused E.U. politicians and officials of issuing “threats” that have been “deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election that will take place on the 8th of June.”
Tensions between the continent and the United Kingdom have ratcheted up after a German press report about a dinner last week at which May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker discussed Britain’s exit. The leaked account painted an unflattering portrait of May.
May initially dismissed the report as “Brussels gossip,” but by Wednesday her tune had changed.
“In the last few days, we have seen just how tough these talks are likely to be,” May said. “Britain’s negotiating position in Europe has been misrepresented in the continental press.”
In March, Britain triggered Article 50, the formal mechanism for leaving the E.U., setting in motion a two-year negotiation process between London and the bloc’s other 27 members.
May’s strong language highlights how poisonous the negotiations have already become. But her remarks also signal a deliberate domestic strategy as May seeks to cast herself in the British election as someone who can go toe-to-toe with European officials.
Earlier in the week, May said she would be a “bloody difficult woman” in the negotiations with the E.U.
Responding to May’s speech, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said, “Theresa May is playing party games with Brexit in the hope of winning advantage for the Tories in the general election.”
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, said that May was “playing a dangerous game” and that her comments could “poison” the atmosphere in future Brexit talks.
May's statement Wednesday came shortly after she met with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace to officially start the election campaign.
According to a leaked account in a leading German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Juncker left last week’s dinner with May “10 times more skeptical” that a deal could be achieved.
The two reportedly clashed over the “divorce bill,” the rights of E.U. citizens and the timing of trade talks. After the meeting, Juncker was said to have told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that May was living in another “galaxy.”
Merkel then warned that some British officials harbor “illusions” about what is possible in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
One of the major sticking points in the early discussions is the size of the divorce bill that Britain will pay the E.U.
David Davis, Britain’s Brexit minister, strongly disputed a report Wednesday in the Financial Times that 100 billion euros ($109 billion) would be the price tag demanded by the bloc.
“We will not be paying 100 billion,” Davis said.
The E.U.’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, refused to put a figure on Britain’s exit bill. But he did say Wednesday that Britain must settle its accounts before it can begin talks about a future trading relationship with the E.U.
“The clock is ticking,” he said.