back to top

Here's What European Papers Made Of The Article 50 Letter

"Theresa May's letter to the European Union is poison wrapped in cellophane, iron fist in silk glove, high-voltage cynicism wrapped in exquisitely diplomatic language."

Posted on

Theresa May's Article 50 letter was roundly criticised by newspapers around Europe on Wednesday and Thursday, as the UK officially started the process of leaving the European Union.

The British ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, delivered the letter by hand to European Council president Donald Tusk in Brussels on Wednesday, informing him that the UK was officially withdrawing.

Over six pages, May detailed what she wanted from the next two years of negotiations with the 27 member countries, and what kind of relationship the UK was hoping to have with the continent in the future.

On Thursday morning, a Downing Street spokesperson told journalists: “The feedback we have received is that the tone of the prime minister’s letter was appreciated.”

This assessment seemed, however, somewhat optimistic. Here's what some European newspapers had to say about the decision that shook a continent.

"Perfectly assumed blackmail"

"Under the appearance of the most perfect cordiality, dotted with some concessions obligingly communicated to the press the day before, the almost sweet missive is a skilful 'off-topic'," writes Philippe Bernard, London correspondent for France's Le Monde.

"The British prime minister, instead of responding to the expectations of the 27, by telling them about how she intends to settle the divorce she requires, dwells on what she considers essential for her country: a 'deep and special partnership' with the EU, in other words a trade agreement that preserves the interests of the City. Which the Europeans do not want to hear about before London pays the bill and figures out how to go.

"The phrase 'deep and special partnership' is used no less than seven times and, surprisingly, it encompasses not only the economic issues but also the security of the continent, with perfectly assumed blackmail: If you do not open your market to our products, the United Kingdom will cease to cooperate in the areas of ​​police, intelligence, and the fight against terrorism.

"'A failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened,' writes May. While denying the slightest intention of blackmail, home secretary Amber Rudd confirmed it crudely: 'We are the largest contributor to Europol. So if we left Europol, then we would take our information with us.'"


"High-voltage cynicism"

Xavier Vidal-Folch, from the Spanish El Pais, goes even further. "Theresa May's letter to the European Union is poison wrapped in cellophane, iron fist in silk glove, high-voltage cynicism wrapped in exquisitely diplomatic language," he writes.

"Make no mistake: The prime minster's softened language far from indicates a deviation from what has always been the plan, a Brexit hard and extreme.

"Her long introduction is a catalogue of good intentions, almost a declaration of love. So mellow and sweet it seems incredible that it came from the same country that despised and criminalised European immigrants, prevented them from voting in the referendum (as opposed to Commonwealth), and prohibited British residents on the continent from casting their ballots."

He concludes: "Although courtesy is always better than outbursts, it is pathetic to send over an aggressive proposal of divorce as if it were a pleasant marriage proposal."

"A consistent, albeit fundamental, step"

In a piece entitled "Theresa May in Wonderland", German Bettina Schulz writes for Die Zeit: "The planned exit of the UK is a consistent, albeit fundamental, step. The two former British prime ministers Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher led Britain into the EEC and later the EU to secure their political influence in Europe. Britain should take advantage of the common market. Or more precisely: use it. Just as the UK has done for centuries, financed by London banks.

"There was and is only one great difference that many Britons still do not understand: The EU is a community of sovereign states, not a colony.

"The British were not really ready for that. And the hope of Britain to use the EU as a steady source of lucrative deals has never been fulfilled. Therefore, the departure from the EU is logical. It is only in this respect that we deliberately underline that the great problems of the UK have nothing to do with sovereignty. They are completely homemade."

"From now on, there will be them, and us"

"Theresa May began her country's march towards a new 'bright future' – we’re not being ironic, these are her words," starts Jurek Kuczkiewicz's assessment in Belgian paper Le Soir.

"How can the prime minister think she is continuing 'to advance and protect our shared European values', while welcoming the fact that she has liberated her fellow citizens from the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Court of Justice, which have been loathed for years by a majority of the British establishment?

"And more simply, how will the United Kingdom be 'stronger' tomorrow by being more alone in negotiating with the greats of this world? 'Fairer' by abandoning a corpus of rights and values ​​that guaranteed them?

"The British can be left alone with these questions, which we could share with them when they were members of our family. As of Wednesday, March 29, things have changed. From now on, there will be them, and us.

"This is what defines a relationship based on negotiation, where one starts from a distant position to come closer: Even if there are disagreements, sometimes hard, the aim is to get closer. In this case, though, where the United Kingdom has chosen to withdraw to an enigmatic elsewhere, the dynamic is that of distance.

"You want a brighter future without us? We will look for ours. Without you, and sometimes against you if we have to," he concludes.

"There is nothing to celebrate"

"It is a strange twist of vocabulary that the key word in this historic day is to 'trigger", says Paolo Lepri in Italian daily Corriere Della Sera.

"As the newspapers from around the English-speaking world said, the prime minister Theresa May yesterday 'triggered' Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which provides for 'a voluntary and unilateral withdrawal mechanism of a country in the European Union'.

"It had never happened before, and it was necessary to invent a new word, Brexit. Anyway, the first thing to hope for is that the gun of this trigger does not hurt anyone, either in Britain or Europe.

"There is nothing to celebrate, no matter what you think, because in a continent that has experienced an economic crisis, that is facing the risks of globalisation, that is threatened by a war declared on the basic principles of free coexistence, the concerns of citizens are the same, from Manchester to Thessaloniki. And Britain's dream of projecting more strongly into the world has the stench of nostalgia and, contrary to what they think, little modernity."

He continues: "On the eve of the referendum, Ian McEwan wrote that looking to the regimes of Russia, China, or the complete collapse of freedom of expression in Muslim-majority countries, Europe was beginning to look like 'the most reasonable place on the planet.' He talked about young people who were born after the overcoming of borders, the many men and many women who have sought opportunities in countries that were not theirs (not least the UK), and all those for whom the 'free movement of citizens' was always their only reality.

"You cannot die just a little. But it is in the name of sacrifice and the passion of all these people that the departure of London must not completely kill the 'old' Europe, also built with the 'no' of Margaret Thatcher, one of the great architects of the single market, and the vision of Tony Blair. A Europe that is not as old as we often think it is."


Marie Le Conte is a politics and media reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Marie Le Conte at

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.