The last time European Union officials were being spied on – and questioned it publicly (after Edward Snowden exposed the reality) – it was the Obama administration in 2013.
Now five years later, The Telegraph reports that the EU’s Brexit negotiators fear that they are being bugged by the British secret service after the UK obtained sensitive documents “within hours” of them being presented to a meeting of EU officials last month.
The EU bugging fears were raised at a meeting in the European Council on July 13 by a top member of Michel Barnier’s Brexit negotiating team, according to a highly placed EU source.
Sabine Weyand told EU officials attending the meeting of the European Council’s Article 50 Working Party that “it could not be excluded” that British intelligence had penetrated their meetings, the source said.
The EU fears were spawned after British negotiators obtained the contents of a politically explosive slide presentation almost immediately after they were shared on July 5 – just a day before Theresa May’s crunch Chequers summit .
The slides, the contents of which have been communicated to The Telegraph, contained highly negative European Commission economic assessments of British plans to remain in the EU’s “single market for goods”.
Within hours, the source said, the UK had lobbied at the “highest level” to block EU Commission plans to publish the slides which would have been widely regarded as a pre-emptive EU strike against the Chequers plan.
The UK efforts to suppress publication of the slides were successful – they have not since been published – but the Telegraph claims that their contents raise serious questions about the political viability of Mrs May’s Brexit plans.
The slides warned that leaving the UK free to diverge on services, while promising to remain closely aligned on goods regulations, would give the UK a damaging competitive advantage over time.
Speaking privately to The Telegraph, UK officials dismiss the European bugging concerns as “too imaginative,”…
“We don’t need to resort to secret methods,” said one very senior UK official involved in the talks, “there are plenty of friends who will share what is going on anyway.”
And a senior EU diplomat involved in the Brexit talks made light of Ms Weyand’s fears of British eavesdropping.
“To be honest, we have never thought anything different,” he said, noting that the Obama administration bugging the phone of Mrs Merkel destroyed any illusions that allies would not bug each other.
The allegations come as British negotiators are set to return to Brussels today to resume Brexit talks with the two sides remaining far apart on the key issues of customs arrangements and Ireland, and Latvia’s foreign minister warning on Wednesday that the risk of a ‘no deal’ outcome was now “50-50”.