IT HAS become sadly common for foreign powers to be accused of intervening in elections. But usually it is Russia or China that is said to be involved. That Theresa May should this week have accused unnamed European politicians and officials of deliberately seeking to affect the result of the election on June 8th is more shocking. In fact she may benefit from a sudden outburst of bad blood between Britain and its European Union partners—but it risks souring the Brexit negotiations.

It was not meant to be like this in late March, when the prime minister invoked Article 50, the EU mechanism for withdrawal. Her letter was well received, partly because her earlier mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal” was replaced by hopes for a new “deep and special partnership”. She also hinted at the need for a transition at the end of the two-year period set by Article 50. On April 29th the EU’s 27 other heads of government duly approved political guidelines for Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator. His more detailed draft mandate, circulated this week, will be rubber-stamped on May 22nd and formal talks should begin soon after Britain’s election.

The souring of the mood came after the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAZ), a German newspaper, published a colourful account of an apparently disastrous dinner date between Mrs May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission’s president, in London on April 26th. Like brawling boxers at a weigh-in, the two sides have since been unable to restrain themselves from a premature scrap. 

British critics complained that the commission’s promises to be transparent over Brexit hardly justified a leak of a private meeting. (Many blamed Martin Selmayr, Mr Juncker’s combative chief of staff.) Yet the story suggested the prime minister is struggling to master her brief. She reportedly said a deal allowing her, as home secretary in 2014, to opt into selective EU security and judicial measures could serve as a template for Brexit. To Brussels, this implies a failure to see that Britain will be negotiating as a third country, not an EU member. “Mrs May still appears to be in cherry-picking mode,” says John Kerr, a former British ambassador to the EU.

The commission was irritated by Mrs May’s refusal to accept a rejigging of the current EU budget, citing “purdah” rules that bar such decisions during election campaigns. “FULL PURDAH RECIPROCITY,” Mr Selmayr tweeted, suspending informal talks. Mr Barnier’s draft mandate includes demands from the 27 that could push the gross “Brexit bill” (obligations the EU thinks Britain has incurred) as high as €80bn-100bn ($87bn-109bn), according to the Financial Times (the net bill would be lower). This week the commission also started efforts to shift the clearing of euro-denominated financial instruments away from London.

Such heavy-handed tactics may just underline Mrs May’s main pitch to British voters: that only she has the strength to take on the grasping Eurocrats. This week she repeated her “no deal” mantra and her quip from last July that Mr Juncker would be the next to learn that she is a “bloody difficult woman”. In fact, it is not the commission but other EU governments that may be the most awkward. The guidelines agreed on April 29th were tightened during talks among the 27, and the higher bill reflects demands that Britain should shell out for EU farm subsidies until 2020, as well as being denied a share in assets like buildings. Spanish sensitivities on Gibraltar and a mention of Irish unification are also reflected in the negotiating texts.

Mrs May still seems to want parallel talks over the divorce and over a subsequent trade deal with the EU. But the guidelines say that discussions on trade, as well as on any transition, must wait until the 27 governments agree that “sufficient progress” (a phrase that will now be endlessly parsed) has been made on withdrawal talks. This is unlikely to happen until October or even later, making it still less likely that a trade deal can be done within the two years of Article 50. Yet the 27, hitherto united, may not hold together on the sequencing. Those with extensive trade links with Britain, such as the Dutch (see chart), already fret that the divorce talks may get bogged down.

They have reason to worry. The debate over the Brexit bill will be fierce, but so may talks over the rights of the 3.2m EU citizens living in Britain, and the 1.2m Britons in the EU. The EU seeks a settlement covering everything from employment, eligibility for health care and benefits, the status of non-EU spouses, university tuition fees, pension transferability and more—as well as a legal underpinning for an agreement (the EU will insist on the European Court of Justice, a red line for Brexiteers). Nothing irritates Eurocrats more than the apparent British belief that details can be settled by what one calls a “flowery declaration”. The British are anyway expected to apply their own tougher rules for non-EU spouses to EU citizens in Britain.

A mix of pre-negotiation swagger and the election was bound to raise the temperature. Brexiteer buffoonery or European intransigence could kill the talks; the FAZ report claims that Mr Juncker’s “entourage” puts the chances of a deal at less than 50%. There are concerns about two common views in London. One is the idea that Mrs May can get a good deal only by threatening to walk out, something her advisers fault her predecessor, David Cameron, for not doing in his renegotiation last year. The other is that she can ignore Brussels and merely talk to the German and French leaders. Both views are seen in Brussels as delusional, for they overestimate what is an inherently weak bargaining position.

Yet in the end Mrs May and her fellow leaders all want a deal. They understand that the logic of negotiation can lead governments into surprising concessions. The EU may be right in thinking that Mrs May has not grasped her own weakness, but that does not mean it will reject all compromises. Expect more huffing and puffing, at least until June 8th. Only after that will the fight truly begin.