European council president also takes aim at Corbyn and says there is no new offer for UK
The European Union’s frustration with the British government has erupted into the open, prompting a vicious war of words across the Channel as Theresa May heads to Brussels to try to salvage her Brexit deal.
Unscripted comments from Donald Tusk, president of the European council, warning of a “special place in hell” for those who pushed for Brexit “without even a sketch of a plan” set off a furious reaction in London.
The comments came just 24 hours before May is due to sit down with Tusk to try and hammer out a way forward. The leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom – a Brexiter – described Tusk’s comments as “spiteful”.
“I think that what he has said is pretty unacceptable and pretty disgraceful,” she said.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: “It’s this sort of arrogance that drives antipathy towards the EU. We are a country that upholds the result of democratic votes. Our EU partners need to respect that.”
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, tweeted that Tusk’s remarks were “out of order”.
Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, condemned Tusk for being “deliberately provocative [and] very disrespectful”. DUP MP Sammy Wilson described the EU leader as a “devilish Euro-maniac”.
A spokesman for May said: “I think it is a question for Donald Tusk as to whether he considers the use of that kind of language to be helpful. I appreciate that was difficult this morning as he didn’t take any questions.”
The row threatens to poison an already tense day of meetings for the prime minister, who is due to hold talks with Tusk, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt.
Verhofstadt tweeted of the Brexiters: “Well, I doubt Lucifer would welcome them, as after what they did to Britain, they would even manage to divide hell.”
It will be the first time May meets the EU’s most senior officials since her withdrawal agreement was rejected in the House of Commons last month by an historic 230 votes.
May is seeking “alternative arrangements” to replace the Irish backstop, a time-limit on the customs union it envisages or a unilateral exit mechanism.
But following meetings with the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in Brussels, Tusk and Juncker both resolutely rejected any change to the backstop.
Tusk told reporters that the EU was not “making any new offer” to Britain, and demanded a “realistic” suggestion from May on how to end the impasse.
Juncker said that May already knew before arriving in Brussels that the EU would not reopen discussions on the backstop.
“The so-called alternative arrangements can never replace the backstop,” Juncker added.
“There is no way you can have a unilateral jumping out of the backstop because the backstop is needed as a guarantee. A safety net is not a safety net if it can be destroyed by the unilateral action of one party.”
A photograph was later circulated of Juncker and Varadkar reading a card from a family in Dublin, thanking the EU for its solidarity.
“For the 1st time ever Ireland is stronger [than] Britain,” the card read. “That strength comes not from guns … it comes from your word and that of your colleagues. Britain does not care about peace in Northern Ireland. To them it’s a nuisance.”
During his press conference with Varadkar, Tusk also claimed there was a void of leadership at the heart of the remain movement and appeared to lament Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to back moves towards a second referendum.
“At the moment, the pro-Brexit stance of the UK prime minister, and the leader of the opposition, rules out this question,” Tusk said. “Today, there is no political force and no effective leadership for remain. I say this without satisfaction, but you can’t argue with the facts.”
Varadkar expressed a widespread view in Brussels that “the instability in British politics in recent weeks demonstrates exactly why we need a legal guarantee and a solution that is operable that we know will work, will last”.
Varadkar, who is due to have dinner with May on Friday, said the EU had been flexible throughout: “Perhaps it’s for those who have created the problem to be creative now.”
Asked about May’s ambitions for coming to Brussels, Varadkar said: “I do have a concern around this idea of alternative arrangements.
“We need to bear in mind that this majority that perhaps existed or did exist in the House of Commons for alternative arrangements probably only existed because alternative arrangements can mean whatever you want them to mean.
“I don’t believe that would have passed if people actually had to get into the detail.”
Varadkar was also picked up by microphones telling Tusk that the British will “give you terrible trouble”, to which the former Polish prime minister laughed and nodded.
Sources close to Tusk, who held an “open and frank” telephone call with May last week, said the comments had been “from the heart”.
May’s visit has been described as “part of a process” by No 10 and she is expected to arrive in Brussels without having narrowed down which of three proposed approaches she hopes to pursue – an end-date to the backstop; a unilateral exit clause; or hi-tech alternatives to border checks.
“We are continuing to work on all three,” the prime minister’s spokesman said on Wednesday.
May has promised to bring a reworked withdrawal agreement back for MPs to approve “as soon as possible”; but senior government sources suggested that was unlikely to be next week.
Asked whether he agreed with Tusk’s comments about the Brexiters, Juncker had told reporters: “I believe in heaven and I have never seen hell, apart from the time I was doing my job here. It’s a hell.”