Theresa May is braced for a hostile reception in Brussels on Thursday, with EU chief Donald Tusk fuming over her failure to come up with new ideas to rescue her Brexit deal and saying there was “a special place in hell” for the UK’s leading Eurosceptics.
The European Council president’s remarkable outburst reflected Mr Tusk’s “genuine, deep frustration with the mess that we are in”, according to one EU official, but it only complicated Mrs May’s attempt to placate pro-Brexit Tory MPs.
The prime minister’s visit is intended to explore ways to revise the deal that was heavily rejected by the House of Commons last month, but hopes of a breakthrough were set at zero: “We will go there and they will say No,” said one May aide.
Her spokesman admitted Mrs May would come up with no specific new proposals to revise the draft Brexit treaty, which includes the controversial backstop to avoid a hard border in Ireland, but said the trip was “the start of a process”.
At Westminster there was a growing sense that Mrs May is running down the clock towards Brexit day on March 29, in the hope that both the EU and hardline Eurosceptics will make concessions as the deadline approaches.
Mr Tusk’s attack on the leaders of the 2016 Leave campaign infuriated Mrs May, who wants to cool passions in her party and try to persuade them to back a deal that tweaks the backstop provisions.
He said he had been “wondering what a special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan for how to carry it out”.
“It is a question for Donald Tusk whether he considers that kind of language to be helpful,” Mrs May’s spokesman said.
Andrea Leadsom, pro-Brexit leader of the House of Commons, said Mr Tusk should apologise for his “spiteful” comments: “This is a negotiation between friends, allies, neighbours. It’s supposed to be collegiate and collaborative, and it totally demeans him.”
Mrs May’s spokesman confirmed the prime minister would explore three broad ways of revising the backstop proposal, an insurance policy against a hard border in Ireland which includes a “temporary” customs union.
The first would see a technology-based solution and other “alternative arrangements” to ensure no physical checks at the border; the second would be a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop; the third, a time limit.
Brussels expects Mrs May to pursue the third option, despite consistent rejection to date by the EU. But Downing Street said she was not yet in a position to give firm details of any of her ideas.
With 51 days until Britain is due to leave the EU, there is a growing sense that Mrs May is treading water. The House of Commons, which is supposed to process a series of major Brexit bills before March 29, is becalmed. House of Commons business was adjourned at 3.28pm on Wednesday.
Mrs May’s team admit there is virtually no chance of her agreeing a new deal before she makes a progress report to MPs on February 13; many MPs now expect the Brexit haggling to run well into March.
Mr Tusk has warned that there would be no new EU proposal to unlock Brexit talks over the controversial Irish backstop, which is vehemently opposed by much of Mrs May’s Conservative party and her allies in the Democratic Unionist party.
EU officials — and some UK ministers — suggest that the political deadlock over Brexit and the difficulty in pushing through legislative changes mean Britain will have to ask for a delay for Brexit day from March 29, possibly until the end of June.
Mr Tusk’s remarks also appeared to mark a personal change of course. As someone who had been outspoken in his encouragement for the UK to reverse its stance and stay in the EU, Mr Tusk appeared to accept that the battle had been lost.
“The facts are unmistakable,” he said. “Today there is no political force and no effective leadership for remain. At the moment the pro-Brexit stance of the UK prime minister and the leader of the opposition rules out this question.”
The difficulties Mrs May will face in Brussels were later underlined by Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, who said the EU “cannot reopen the discussion on the backstop”.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s point man on the Brexit negotiations, maintained the infernal theme on Wednesday. He tweeted of the hardline Brexiters: “Well, I doubt Lucifer would welcome them, as after what they did to Britain, they would even manage to divide hell.”
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