The 'merciless hand of the king' could sabotage Brexit talks before they have even begun

British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) attends a bilateral meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk (L) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (2nd L) during the second day of the EU Summit as he continues his attempts to negotiate new membership terms for the UK, at the Council of the European Union on February 19, 2016 in Brussels, Belgium. Most of Europe's 28 member state leaders have gathered in Brussels to take part in a crucial summit and vote on British Prime Minister David Cameron's pledge to renegotiate the terms of Britain's membership in the EU, namely proposals to limit benefits for migrant workers. A referendum on whether Great Britain will stay in or leave the European Union is to be held before the end of 2017, though many expect it to take place in June this year. (Photo by Francois Lenoir - Pool/Getty Images)Francois Lenoir – Pool/Getty ImagesJean Claude Juncker’s chief of staff Martin Selmayr attending talks in February where then British Prime Minister David Cameron tried to renegotiate EU membership terms.

LONDON — Unnamed British officials have told the Telegraph they are concerned that hardliners in Europe are trying to force Britain into an impossible negotiating position over Brexit that could send the UK crashing out of EU without a deal.

The paper quotes several unnamed sources in a report on Monday, including this British official:

“If the European Commission persists with these ridiculous numbers when the talks begin, then there is a real risk that our side just says ‘forget it, we’ll see you in court’ and the entire process blows up at the outset.”

The ridiculous number in question is €50 billion, the figure the European Union wants Britain to pay as a divorce fee. The controversial number, which covers everything from budget contributions to pension liabilities, is around €30 billion more than UK estimates of a reasonable fee.

Officials fear that EU negotiators are simply using the €50 billion as a negotiating tool to force Britain into the hardest of hard Brexits, crashing out of the EU with no trade deals and potentially locked in bitter legal disputes with European institutions over the exit.

The sources blame Martin Selmayr, the powerful chief of staff for European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker. The European Commission was recently appointed as the chief negotiator for the EU in Brexit talks and Selmayr is understood to be part of a European faction that wants to punish Britain in negotiations to stop other nations from leaving the EU.

The Daily Express reported on Selmayr’s apparent anti-British zeal just a few months after the vote and claims that several EU nations blocked Selmayr’s appointment as chief Brexit negotiator, the role instead going to Michel Barnier.

But Selmayr still appears to be playing a central role in the EU’s Brexit talks. Bloomberg reported last week that Selmayr was at the centre of a row among members over the EU’s negotiating strategy after he objected to calls from member states that they have individual representatives involved in the process.

If Selmayr is indeed behind the punishing Brexit demands then British officials face an uphill struggle to win better exit terms. Selmayr, a former lawyer, was described in a recent Politico profile as a “monster” and “the merciless hand of the king.” The profile adds: “Martin Selmayr is admired, despised and feared. What’s clear: He’s the most powerful EU chief of staff ever.” Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat described Selmayr as “a man with rough edges who uses his power happily and frantically.”

However, while Selmayr wields a great amount of power in Brexit negotiations, Britain may be able to find some allies. The Telegraph reports there are some dissenting nations within the EU, notably in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, who feel the terms are too onerous and could support Britain in calls for the €50 billion figure to be lowered.

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