Brussels chiefs 'should keep views on Brexit and UK election to themselves'
Brexit talks would be easier if European Commission officials "kept their views to themselves", Sir Michael Fallon has said amid claims that the EU is seeking to bully British voters.
The Defence Secretary bemoaned "one-sided leaking" from commission officials as he defended Prime Minister Theresa May's scathing attack on Brussels in the wake of negative press stories about the negotiations on Britain's exit from the EU.
His remarks came hours after Brexit Secretary David Davis said "the line was crossed" when further stories appeared suggesting that Britain would be hit with an exit bill of 100 billion euros (£84.5 billion) - nearly double the previous estimates.
Mr Davis also backed Mrs May's response as he claimed the commission was "trying to bully the British people", adding on BBC One's Question Time: "The British people will not be bullied, and the Government will not allow them to be bullied."
European Council president Donald Tusk had appealed for discretion in the negotiations - a plea widely viewed as being aimed at European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker's office.
Sir Michael, asked if it would be easier if Mr Tusk and others did not comment on what is going on, told BBC Radio 4's Today: "Well, it'd certainly be easier if commission officials kept their views to themselves and not further complicate what is already going to be a tough negotiation.”
"But what's clear from Theresa May's reaction is that she is prepared, whatever the commission officials are doing in Brussels, to stand up for Britain's vital national interest in these very complicated talks."
Mrs May sent shockwaves through Brussels with a dramatic Downing Street statement on Wednesday accusing unnamed "European politicians and officials" of issuing threats deliberately timed to affect the June 8 vote.
The row blew up after a German newspaper published an apparently well-briefed account of the Prime Minister's meeting with key Brussels figures in No 10 last week.
It reportedly ended with Mr Juncker saying he was "10 times more sceptical" of the likelihood of a successful Brexit.
Mr Tusk, at a press conference in Brussels, said in his appeal for calm: "The stakes are too high to let our emotions get out of hand because at stake are the daily lives and interests of millions of people on both sides of the Channel.”
"We must keep in mind that in order to succeed we need today discretion, moderation, mutual respect and a maximum of goodwill."
European Parliament president Antonio Tajani rejected the Prime Minister's claim and a spokesman for Mr Juncker said his office was too busy to meddle in the election.
Former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb said there will be people both in the UK and Europe who want the negotiations to fail, noting there are people on mainland Europe who want to "make sure Britain doesn't get a good deal".
Mr Stubb told the BBC: "There are many reasons for that. Some might say if they get a good deal then my country would want to get out of the EU as well, and other people just want to punish the UK.”
"I think we have to be more civil about this. At the end of the day, this is lose-lose and it's just a question of how much all of us lose."
Speaking at a state of the union EU conference in Italy, Mr Tajani said he was "optimistic" about negotiations with the UK.
"We have to be aware of the fact that as far as we are concerned we have a priority, the three million EU citizens who live in the UK will continue to have the same rights they have today, the day after Brexit. And, of course, we also want to guarantee the same rights to the one million UK citizens living here.”
"No-one wants to interfere in the electoral campaign in the UK.
"In fact, we are pleased that at the beginning of the negotiations at the end of this month we will have a stable UK government. A government which won't be struggling to obtain votes.”
"We welcome a government with a mandate from its citizens when it comes to solving its problems. And that's why I am optimistic as to the outcome.”
"It would be detrimental to everybody were we not capable of reaching an agreement."
Mr Juncker told the conference in the Italian city of Florence that Brexit was "a tragedy" and accused the UK of "abandoning" the EU.
Hailing the return to economic growth in Europe in recent years, Mr Juncker said: "Now growth in the EU is twice that in the US and I feel we can be reassured as far as the immediate future is concerned.”
"And at that point - despite the success, despite the growth - our British friends decided to leave the EU, which is a tragedy.”
"We shouldn't under-estimate the importance of the decision made by the British people. It is no small event.”
"Of course we will negotiate with our British friends in full transparency, but there should be no doubt whatsoever that it is not the EU which is abandoning the UK, it is the opposite - they are abandoning the EU.”
"And this is a difference which will be felt over the next few years."
Mr Juncker delivered his address in French, joking: "I will express myself in French because, slowly but surely, English is losing importance in Europe."