(CN) – With 50 days to go, the deadline for Great Britain's departure from the European Union is fast approaching and the atmosphere hanging over the fraught negotiations over its withdrawal threatens to become toxic.
On Thursday, British Prime Minister Theresa May returned to Brussels to renew talks with EU leaders over a stalled withdrawal agreement, but she did so in an atmosphere of tension after the president of the European Council stirred passions with a comment he made.
“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,” Donald Tusk said, appearing to read from a script, at a news conference with Ireland's prime minister at his side on Wednesday.
It was a blunt rebuke of the so-called “Brexiters,” conservative British politicians like Boris Johnson who led a 2016 referendum campaign that convinced Brits to vote to leave the EU. Brexiters often are accused of pushing for Brexit without a realistic plan on what would happen if they won. The Brexit vote was unexpected.
Tusk is seen as a soft-spoken and polite Polish politician not known for hyperbolic language, so his comment struck many as particularly meaningful.
Not surprisingly, his comments immediately provoked a string of reactions from support to condemnation.
“Thank heavens we are leaving. Brussels still does not get it!” wrote Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory member and leading Brexiter, in the Sun newspaper, a popular British tabloid.
He called Tusk an “arrogant” bureaucrat engaged in “playground politics.”
He said Brexiters offered a detailed plan for exiting the EU, adding that Brits chose to leave the EU because of the bloc's failed policies.
“Britain is implementing the will of the people,” Rees-Mogg said. “That is democracy, but Mr. Tusk represents bureaucracy so is incapable of understanding the popular mood.”
Brexiters often blast the EU for being run by bureaucrats who are not elected. Tusk was appointed president by the European Council, which is made up of the heads of the EU's member states.
Others went much further. Sammy Wilson, a British parliamentary member with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, used incendiary language in describing Tusk.
“This devilish euro maniac is doing his best to keep the United Kingdom bound by the chains of EU bureaucracy and control,” Wilson said, charging that Tusk and “his arrogant EU negotiators” had “fanned the flames of fear” in order to overturn the Brexit referendum.
“All he will succeed in doing is stiffening the resistance of those who have exercised their choice to be clear of Tusk and his trident-wielding cabal,” the Northern Irish politician said.
The DUP plays a crucial role in Brexit. Its 10 parliamentary members prop up May's Tory government, but the DUP is adamantly opposed to a deal May struck with the EU over the terms of Britain's divorce.
Under that deal, which was resoundingly rejected last month by the British Parliament, Northern Ireland would remain aligned with EU rules and customs indefinitely in order to keep the border with the Irish Republic free of border checks. But the DUP objected to that arrangement, fearing Northern Ireland would become separated from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Tusk also received support.
Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian politician and the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator, said in a tweet: “Well, I doubt Lucifer would welcome them, as after what they did to Britain, they would even manage to divide hell.” He added a smiley face to his tweet.
In Britain, too, Tusk's comment fell on sympathetic ears.
Mark Steel, a comedian and columnist for the Independent newspaper in Britain, reminded readers of eyebrow-raising comments made by Britain's foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, who in October compared the EU to the Soviet Union's gulag system and how Johnson, the former foreign minister, likened the EU project to Adolf Hitler's attempt to build a “European superstate.”