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EU officials deny Brexit dinner report

[BRUSSELS] EU officials on Monday denied a German newspaper report saying a "tortured" British Prime Minister Theresa May pleaded with EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker for help in stalled Brexit negotiations at a dinner in Brussels last week.

German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) said that Mrs May "begged" Mr Juncker for help in the negotiations, warning Europeans of the immense political risk she had taken domestically in backing away from a hard Brexit and asking for a two-year transition period.

The article, which did not cite sources, said Mrs May appeared "tortured", "fearful" and "discouraged" at a dinner with Mr Juncker just days ahead of an EU summit in which EU leaders handed Mrs May a small victory by agreeing to start preparations for the next stage of negotiations.

The report which appeared on Sunday said Mr Juncker later told colleagues that Mrs May appeared beaten down by party infighting and looked like she wasn't sleeping at night, with "dark circles" under her eyes.

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In a tweet, Mr Juncker's cabinet chief Martin Selmayr, who also attended the dinner with Mrs May, staunchly denied the newspaper report.

"I deny that 1) we leaked this; 2) Juncker ever said this; 3) we are punitive on Brexit," wrote Mr Selmayr.

"It's an attempt to frame EU side and to undermine."

Mr Selmayr's response came after Mrs May's former joint chief of staff Nick Timothy took to Twitter to accuse him of leaking the information, calling it a "reminder that some in Brussels want no deal or a punitive one".

Mr Selmayr, a former ECB official from Germany, is a powerful figure in Brussels, known as a skilled spin doctor and is often thought to be a source to FAZ, a conservative Frankfurt-based daily.

It is the latest leak to highlight the fraught atmosphere surrounding the talks, whose slow progress has stoked fears Britain could leave the European Union in March 2019 without a deal in place, risking economic and legal chaos.

Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas accused unnamed people of trying to "point at us to serve their own political agendas, their own political priorities or even to undermine our negotiatiing position".

"President Juncker would never have used the words attributed to him and never would have said anything like this. We have never been punitive on Brexit, we have said many times at all levels we are working for a fair deal," Mr Schinas said at a regular news conference.

A diplomatic row had erupted in May following a similar report in the daily that Mr Juncker had left a dinner meeting with the British PM "10 times more sceptical" about the prospect of a Brexit deal and told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Mrs May was in a "different galaxy".

That report was widely attributed to Mr Selmayr and came just weeks ahead of British elections that turned into an embarrassing debacle for Mrs May who lost her majority in the UK parliament.

AFP

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