EU calls newspaper report of Juncker disparaging 'despondent' May after dinner a 'smear'

President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker arrives at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, on June 22, 2017.
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker arrives at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, on June 22, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (REUTERS) - The European Commission said a newspaper report that Mr Jean-Claude Juncker had disparaged Mrs Theresa May's "despondent" demeanour after a dinner last week was a deliberate smear intended to disrupt Brexit negotiations.

It was the second time in six months that a correspondent for Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who is respected for his access to Mr Juncker's team, has published an account of the EU chief executive's reactions after a dinner meeting with the British Prime Minister on Britain's EU withdrawal.

But unlike in April, the Commission hotly denied leaking the story, which painted an unflattering picture of a British leader worn down by party infighting and "pleading" for the EU's help.

President Juncker's chief-of-staff got into a Twitter spat with his former counterpart in Mrs May's team, denying the Briton's allegation that he was the source of the leak and pointing a finger at unnamed interests who were out to hurt relations with London.

"It seems some have interest in undermining constructive relations @JunckerEU & PM May," Mr Martin Selmayr tweeted after the accusation by Mr Nick Timothy. "Who? is the real question."

Mr Timothy, who resigned as Mrs May's chief-of-staff after an election upset in June, had accused Mr Selmayr, the German head of Mr Juncker's office, of briefing the FAZ to undermine improved relations between Mrs May and EU leaders after a summit last week.

"After constructive Council meeting, Selmayr does this," he tweeted. "Reminder that some in Brussels want no deal or a punitive one."

Mr Selmayr said neither he nor Mr Juncker made the reported comments. "This is false. I know it doesn't fit your cliché, #NickJTimothy. But @JunckerEU & I have no interest in weakening PM... It's an attempt 2 frame EU side & 2 undermine talks."

Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters: "Some people like to point at us to serve their own political agendas... or even to undermine our own negotiating position. We would appreciate if these people would leave us alone."

He declined to say who might wish the Commission ill.

Some of the most vocal opponents of Mrs May's negotiations have been fellow Conservatives urging her to reject EU demands for money and other concessions and just walk away without a deal.

Mrs May's spokesman declined comment, but recalled that Mrs May and Mr Juncker had described the dinner as "constructive and friendly".

London was irritated that after the earlier dinner, at 10 Downing Street in April, the FAZ reported that Mr Juncker told aides he thought Mrs May was "in another galaxy" with her demands for favours from the European Union after Britain leaves.

At the time, EU officials did not contest the thrust of that story. Mrs May, who was then expecting the election to strengthen not weaken her, dismissed it as "Brussels gossip".

But officials on both sides said the April report had been a setback to creating an atmosphere of trust needed to reach a deal. It prompted reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was also irritated by the leak for the same reason.

On Friday, EU leaders moved to speed up talks and spoke of opening a new phase in December. Some said they understood Mrs May's difficulties in forging a consensus in London.