European newspapers greeted the formal start of Britainâs exit from the EU with a mixture of pain, puzzlement and predictions that the coming two years of negotiations could get nasty â especially if the UK resorts to âblackmailâ over security cooperation.
In Britain, a week after the attack on Westminster, most of the UK press saw Theresa Mayâs speech triggering article 50 as a direct threat to the EU over fighting terror.
Le Monde in France said Mayâs letter triggering article 50 was not a good start: It âalternated between concessions to the EU and threatsâ, demanding a special future relationship but warning of a reduction in defence and security cooperation if she did not get it.
âInstead of responding to the EU27âs expectations by informing them of her intentions as regards the divorce she is requesting,â the paper said, âBritainâs prime minister stressed â¦ a new âdeep and special partnershipâ, which Europe does not want to discuss until the exit bill and details are settled.â
And for the UK, that partnership must cover not just economic relations but the continentâs security, Le Monde said: âWhat a surprise â¦ This is barefaced blackmail: if you donât open your single market to our products, the UK will cease police, intelligence and anti-terror cooperation.â
Germanyâs Die Welt said the final outcome of Brexit would not be known for years and would probably turn out to be âsomewhere between apocalypse and wonderlandâ, but warned that the âtwo-year marathonâ facing Britain was the countryâs âtoughest race since the second world warâ.
It identified four key stumbling blocks, which could cause âthe entire process to collapse at an early stageâ: money, the rights of EU and UK citizens, the role of the European court of justice â and the issue of security cooperation.
NRC in the Netherlands said despite her assurances to the contrary, May would be hobbled in the coming talks by the âzealotry of the extreme Brexiteersâ, Scottish opposition and a dawning realisation among voters that Brexit âalso, and to a great extent, means giving up control, not taking it backâ.
NRC, too, said the letter contained a clear threat. But it questioned whether it had any weight: âAn insecure Europe rapidly becomes a menace for the country on the other side of the Channel.â
Spainâs El PaÃs waxed more lyrical, saying the âtime of poetry is over, and now it is the turn of hard proseâ. Sir Tim Barrowâs delivery of the article 50 letter marked the start of negotiations that took both Britain and the bloc into âuncharted territory â¦ A colossal project for which there is no precedent.â
It said Britainâs stance was relatively clear: âBasically, its priorities are to end the free movement of people between the UK and the EU, and to leave the jurisdiction of the European court of justice. May acknowledges and accepts that these two demands involve the exit from the common market.â
El PaÃs was heartened by what it saw as a âsoftening of languageâ on the UKâs part, moving from âno deal is better than a bad dealâ to âWe must minimise as much as possible the disturbance on both sides.â
The Sun summed up Mayâs speech as a highwayman threat: âYour money or your lives,â in reference to the security ultimatum. The âPMâs Brexit threat to EU â Trade with us and weâll help fight terror,â it went on, trumpeting âBritainâs world-beating skills on fighting terrorâ.
This was not a rogue reading by Britainâ biggest selling daily: its sister title the Times took the same line with a front page headline that read: âMay threat to EU terror pact.â The Telegraphâs story took the same line, while its treatment offered the Tories the closest they will ever get to a souvenir edition for the Brexit letter itself.
The Telegraph, once so proud of its news coverage, went for a descriptive rather than newsy headline. âA magnificent moment,â was the headline, with the entire top half of the one remaining mainstream daily broadsheet given over to the letter itself on Downing Street headed notepaper, signed by May. The standfirst talked of âJubilation as article 50 is finally servedâ.
In many ways, the Times offers the closest newspaper parallel to May herself. Both offered weak support for remain, remember, against the known preference of their masters; in the paperâs case Rupert Murdoch and for May, the great British people. A surface calm and sense of balance for both can never quite remove the internal struggles within.
The Times and the Sun were unusual yesterday in putting a picture of May on their front pages. Only the Mirror, in relatively muted coverage, used a larger picture of her rather than the two men delivering and receiving the letter itself.
Mayâs threat provoked the European negotiators of course, a fact that was seized on by both the Mail and the Guardian. The way both papers portrayed that reaction was completely different, unsurprisingly.
While the Guardian ran âEU warns: donât blackmail usâ above a picture of a lonely-looking president of the European council, Donald Tusk, gazing at the departing back of Barrow, Britainâs EU ambassador, exiting stage left, the Mail could not resist a full-page picture of the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage in his trademark pose, gurning over a pint of ale while wearing union jack socks.
âCheers to a great British future,â was the triumphalist headline.