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[LONDON] Theresa May's government is increasingly concerned the European Union will seek to punish the UK for leaving the bloc, amid claims the prime minister hasn't done enough to charm her counterparts as she prepares to start Brexit.
Three senior members of Ms May's administration said that the single biggest obstacle to winning favorable exit terms and a new free-trade deal is an "emotional" backlash from the EU against last June's vote for Brexit. One said the premier had not worked hard enough to woo EU leaders, warning that her failure to quell European hostility could prove a weakness in the talks. All three asked not be named as the discussions are private.
Against this backdrop, Brexit Secretary David Davis is preparing an intense round of shuttle diplomacy over the next four weeks in an effort to persuade other EU countries to give the UK a friendly divorce settlement. Analysts also suggested Ms May could strike a conciliatory tone when she formally quits the bloc in a letter she will send on Wednesday.
"The tone of the negotiations is as important as the substance and so far it hasn't been very good," Emma Reynolds, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour Party who sits on the Brexit select committee, said in an interview. "I don't think the prime minister or anybody else in government has done enough to build the sort of alliances and friendships with their EU counterparts that will be crucial to getting a good deal."
The private warnings come as Ms May prepares to invoke Article 50 - the legal exit mechanism from the EU - in two days. This will herald talks lasting as long as two years, during which time Britain wants to settle its divorce agreement and negotiate a comprehensive new free-trade pact with the EU.
The British officials said the EU is feeling hurt by the UK rejection, while European politicians are emotionally invested in the bloc's integration in a way Britain never has been. This emotional mismatch is shaping up to be Ms May's biggest problem, they added.
Yet at exactly the time when the British prime minister needs closest relations with European leaders, Ms May appears increasingly isolated. She stayed away from Saturday's celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the EU's founding Treaty of Rome. And despite traveling to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande soon after she took office last summer, Ms May has suffered rebuffs since.
A sit-down meeting between Ms Merkel and Ms May at last month's informal gathering of EU leaders in Malta was downgraded to a chat as they walked the streets of Valletta, surrounded by the media instead.
British officials see Ms Merkel as key to helping Ms May get the free-trade deal she wants, but the German leader blocked her UK counterpart's efforts to reach an early deal on protecting the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and Britons resident elsewhere in Europe.
In an attempt to win allies, Mr Davis plans to tour European capitals in the month between March 29, when Ms May triggers Article 50, and a meeting of the EU-27 leaders scheduled for April 29, when the remaining member states will agree their unified negotiating position.
Ms May could also use the letter she will send on Wednesday to EU President Donald Tusk to smooth waters, perhaps by indicating a willingness to discuss an exit fee.
"Britain needs goodwill," Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, said in a recent report. "If Ms May does not want to further antagonise her partners she should be humble, constructive and flexible in her letter." Both the EU and the UK have sought to strike a friendlier tone in recent weeks, as the negotiations draw nearer. Yet neither side can afford to show itself to be weak or willing to compromise too early in the process as there is so much at stake.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker insisted last week that the EU is not "in a hostile mood" on Brexit because it wants "a friendly relationship" with Britain in the years ahead. But he also warned he would act to stop other countries leaving the bloc.
Sweden's government is also warning ultimatums from the UK will backfire. "They have been really tough on the UK side," Ann Linde, the country's EU affairs and trade minister, said in an interview. "That's a position they have chosen, but it doesn't make it easier to have constructive discussions when the point is to reach an agreement." When she set out her vision of Brexit in January, Ms May said she wanted Britain to be "the best friend and neighbour to our European partners."
More recently she questioned the use of the term "divorce" to describe the split because "because very often when people get divorced they don't have a very good relationship afterwards. " Yet in the January speech - and in comments since - Ms May insisted she'll walk away from negotiations rather than accept a bad deal for Britain. She also implied a willingness to withdraw security provisions from the continent and make Britain a low-tax haven if required.
Ms May will also face pressure from eurosceptics in the British media and within her own ruling Conservative Party, once the talks begin.
If the EU adopts a tough line and refuses Ms May's request to discuss the future trade deal until Britain agrees to pay an exit bill of tens of billions of pounds, "it is not an exaggeration to suggest the British right-wing media will see this as a declaration of war by the EU27," said Mujtaba Rahman, a managing director at the Eurasia Group.
"This will feed directly into Ms May's political constraints - energising the eurosceptics on her right - making it even more difficult for the government to compromise, and all before the real negotiations even begin," Mr Rahman said.