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Europeans round on top Brexit ministers

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Wed 23 Nov 2016

Europeans round on top Brexit ministers

The attack by Manfred Weber, one of Germany’s most senior politicians and an ally of Angela Merkel, followed a bad-tempered meeting in Strasbourg with Mr Davis, secretary of state for exiting the EU.

It came as European ambassadors told The Times that Mr Johnson’s pronouncements and jokes about Brexit, both in public and private, were causing damage. “This is no longer amusing. It is serious stuff,” one said. British Influence, a research group that has met all 27 European ambassadors in London, summarised their view of Mr Johnson as “mercurial” with a “wit that does not always travel well across the Channel”.

Mr Weber, who leads the biggest bloc of MEPs in the European parliament, rounded on Mr Johnson yesterday for having in September supported Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU despite Britain having voted to leave.

“It is unbelievable, frankly speaking. It is a provocation,” said Mr Weber, who is calling for Turkey’s EU membership bid to be suspended . “He . . . in the Brexit campaign, had leaflets showing Turkey, Syria and Iraq as possible members of the EU, making people afraid of the possible new migration waves . . . Then a few weeks afterwards he is travelling to [President] Erdogan and offering support for becoming a member of the EU. It is a purely arrogant provocation from Johnson when he is telling us what we have to do. I cannot respect any more what he is doing.”

MEPs are expected to vote tomorrow on freezing Turkey’s EU membership talks in a non-binding decision that will incense Mr Erdogan.

Mr Weber was speaking in Strasbourg after Mr Davis travelled there to woo MEPs who have a veto over any Brexit deal. “Welcome to hell,” he was told by Guy Verhofstadt, the EU assembly’s Brexit negotiator, before a day of talks marked by scorn and doubts over the British government’s commitment to leaving the union.

While Mr Davis described the talks as “great fun”, senior MEPs criticised a lack of clarity over what it wants from Brexit five months after the referendum. “I didn’t hear anything new,” Mr Weber said. “Among them there is no idea what Brexit really means.”

The government was forced to clarify its position after Mr Weber claimed that Mr Davis had told him “as far as the EU economy is concerned, [Britain] wants to remain in the single market”, and criticised him for not being serious about Brexit.

A UK government source said: “The position has not changed. The secretary of state was clear in all his meetings that we want the freest possible trading relationship with the EU; he didn’t elaborate further or prejudge.”

Mr Johnson has drawn criticism from a number of European politicians. Last week, when he boasted that Rome would not back trade tariffs on Britain because it would hurt Italian prosecco sales to the UK, the Italian economics minister called it “a bit insulting”.

Mr Verhofstadt warned Mr Davis yesterday that negotiations to leave the EU would have to be concluded in a “tough and intense” time slot of 14 months rather than two years, to allow MEPs to give “consent” to a final deal.

Mr Verhofstadt’s “welcome to hell” greeting was a reference to the secretary of state’s comment to MPs asking him for a reaction to the former Belgian leader’s appointment as Brexit negotiator — “get thee behind me Satan”.

A Foreign Office spokesman said of Mr Johnson’s support for Turkish EU membership: “The UK supports countries which are committed to political, economic and security reforms, including those reforms required by the EU accession process.”