The Prime Minister was accused of “poisoning the well” of Brexit talks after getting the election formally under way with a remarkable attack on the EU outside Number 10.
In some of the most hostile rhetoric on Europe by a sitting UK prime minister, Mrs May suggested unnamed EU figures were trying to sabotage Brexit by misrepresenting Britain’s position in damaging leaks to European media.
Critics claimed the Prime Minister had “gone full Donald Trump” and was feeding the row to win votes at the general election on 8 June.
The remarks follow a turbulent four days in which leaks about a meeting with EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker put Downing Street on the defensive over its Brexit strategy.
Mrs May initially dismissed as “Brussels gossip” reports that Mr Juncker was increasingly pessimistic about reaching a Brexit agreement.
Tensions were raised further with reports yesterday that the “divorce settlement” sought by the EU had almost doubled to €100 billion (£85bn), with the EU chief negotiator warning of “explosive” consequences if the UK tried to avoid “clearing its accounts”.
At a campaign event yesterday morning, Brexit Secretary David Davis said the UK would not be “negotiating with a megaphone”.
But within hours, following a meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace to put the official seal on the dissolution of parliament, Mrs May accused the EU of trying to crash Brexit negotiations and interfere in the UK general election.
She said: “In the last few days, we have seen just how tough these talks are likely to be.
“Britain’s negotiating position in Europe has been misrepresented in the continental press. The European Commission’s negotiating stance has hardened. Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials.
“All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election.”
The Prime Minister said she had made clear that “Britain means no harm to our friends and allies on the continent” despite reaffirming her belief that “no deal is better for Britain than a bad deal”.
She added: “But the events of the last few days have shown that – however reasonable the positions of Europe’s other leaders – there are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed. Who do not want Britain to prosper.”
The remarks also represented a shift in tone on the risks involved in Brexit, with the Prime Minister acknowledging that “the consequences will be serious” if the UK fails to secure the right exit terms from the EU.
She said prosperity and security of future generations would be damaged “if we let the bureaucrats of Brussels run over us”, and claimed only she could provide the leadership needed to get the right deal.
At a press conference in Brussels, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said it was an “illusion” to think Brexit would be quick or painless.
Setting out the EU Commission’s negotiating guidelines for the first phase of talks, Mr Barnier refused to confirm the size of payment he was seeking, and insisted the UK was not being punished.
But he said: “Some have created the illusion that Brexit would have no material impact or that negotiations can be concluded quickly and painlessly. This is not the case.”
Mr Davis insisted that “we will not be paying €100bn” and dismissed as “laughable” reports that Mrs May would be barred from negotiating with other European heads of government and would instead have to go through Mr Barnier.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused the Prime Minister of “poisoning the well” of Brexit talks and trying to turn the EU into a “bogeyman” in order to win votes.
“It is vital for jobs and living standards that the UK gets the best possible deal from Brexit. But for all the bravado, the fact is that the UK government’s leverage in these negotiations is extremely limited.
“So for Theresa May, driven by entirely narrow, partisan motives, to deliberately seek to poison the well will make the negotiating task ahead even harder.
“This is an irresponsible, gratuitous attack on our European neighbours, which is aimed at diverting attention from the Tories’ dismal record on health, the economy, austerity and welfare by painting the EU as a bogeyman.
“Insulting our neighbours simply makes the Brexit mountain much harder to climb, but unfortunately it is par for the course from Theresa May.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the Prime Minister was “playing party games with Brexit” to boost the Tories in next month’s election.
He said: “By winding up the public confrontation with Brussels, the Prime Minister wants to wrap the Conservative party in the Union Jack and distract attention from her government’s economic failure and rundown of our public services.”
Scottish Labour Europe spokesperson Lewis Macdonald MSP said: “Theresa May has gone full Donald Trump with this bizarre intervention. This Tory government is clearly woefully under-prepared for the difficult and complicated negotiations ahead – and insulting Europe’s political leaders is unlikely to make them any more amenable to giving the UK a good deal.”
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: “We need to judge the Prime Minister on her record and a matter of days after her personal intervention the Brexit bill rocketed from €50bn to €100bn. She is the person behind the ‘go home’ vans, blocking child refugees and the rape clause. Her vision of the world is cold and uncaring.”