BRUSSELS – President of the European Union Donald Tusk injected hellfire into the Brexit crisis on Wednesday, damning British leaders for their failure to plan for the divorce and saying he hopes Theresa May now has a “realistic” idea.
The British prime minister is due in Brussels on Thursday to seek new ways towards ensuring Britain’s orderly withdrawal from the EU in March 29 — and to avoid what Tusk warned could be a “fiasco.”
But EU Council president Tusk and EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, after meeting Irish leader Leo Varadkar, warned once again that the divorce deal May agreed last year but failed to sell to her parliament will not be reopened.
Neither will they change the deal’s “backstop” that ensures an open Irish border, they said. And, in remarks that triggered a firestorm, Tusk mocked British eurosceptic leaders, some of whom now favour a “no deal” departure.
“I’ve been wondering what that special place in Hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely,” Tusk said.
Juncker, at a later news conference, did not use the same language, but cheerfully laughed off Tusk’s remark, joking: “I am less Catholic that my friend Donald. I believe in Heaven but I’ve never seen Hell apart from doing my job here. It is Hell.”
This caused an uproar across the Channel, with a spokesman for the Northern Irish loyalist party the DUP picking up on the infernal theme and branding Tusk a “devilish, trident-wielding, euro maniac.”
Number 10 was more measured in its response, but did not hide its irritation.
“It’s a question for Donald Tusk as to whether he considers the use of that kind of language to be helpful, and I appreciate that was difficult this morning because he didn’t take any questions,” May’s spokesman said.
British ministers and Brexiteers have repeatedly used insulting language about EU leaders and the union itself, comparing it to Nazi Germany or the Soviet gulag, but many expressed outrage at Tusk’s taunt.
After Brexit we will be free of unelected, arrogant bullies like you and run our own country.
Sounds more like heaven to me. https://t.co/pTOEmKWJpn
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) February 6, 2019
Eurosceptic British MEP Nigel Farage, who once called former EU leader Hermann van Rompuy a “damp rag”, tweeted at Tusk: “After Brexit we will be free of unelected, arrogant bullies like you and run our own country. Sounds more like heaven to me.”
The impasse in Brussels has led to heightened fears Britain could crash out of the EU without a deal on March 29, disrupting trade and supplies to manufacturing.
Tusk and Juncker said they look forward to hosting May on Thursday, but few in Brussels expect her to come with an acceptable offer to revive the deal, 50 days from Brexit.
Varadkar will have dinner with May in Dublin on Friday.
Offering warm support for his Irish guest, Tusk said the European Union “will not gamble with peace” on the Irish border by removing the backstop from the deal.
“I hope that tomorrow we will hear from Prime Minister May a realistic suggestion on how to end the impasse,” he said.
But he added: “A sense of responsibility also tells us to prepare for a possible fiasco.”
Varadkar, whose government has stressed the importance of maintaining an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit, thanked Tusk.
“While we expect the backstop will never be used, we agreed again today it is needed as a legal guarantee to ensure there is no return to a hard border,” he said.
May fears she will not be able to command a majority in the House of Commons to ratify a withdrawal that binds Britain into a customs union until the border issue is resolved.
On Wednesday, she discussed the issue with Northern Irish leaders in the British province before her difficult visit to Brussels to confront Juncker and Tusk.
Last month, the House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected the Brexit deal that May had negotiated with the EU over 18 months of painstaking diplomacy.
May is now looking into changes to satisfy her MPs, who fear the backstop would keep Britain indefinitely tied to EU rules with even closer alignment for Northern Ireland.
May’s spokesman stressed that she wasn’t coming to Brussels to ask for more time and remained determined to deliver a Brexit deal before the March 29 deadline.
“Parliament voted by a significant margin to set out what it wishes to achieve, which is changes to the backstop,” the Number 10 spokesman told reporters.
Speaking in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, May vowed to seek a solution that keeps the border open and preserves the peace that ended years of violence in the British province.