(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.”
Martin Kettle, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, voiced similar feelings.
“Donald Tusk should be criticised not for his malice, but his moderation,” Kettle wrote. “He should have added that, within that special place, there should be an executive suite of sleepless torment for those politicians who promoted Brexit without ever giving a stuff about Ireland.”
Resolving the issue of the Irish border is the key stumbling block for May.
She, like many others, is determined to keep the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland free of border checks. This is considered necessary to keep intact the Good Friday Agreement, a 1998 peace deal that ended the so-called “Troubles” in Northern Ireland.
But keeping the border open also means keeping Northern Ireland in lockstep with EU rules, customs and tariffs; and this is unacceptable for many members of May’s own party, the Tories.
In going to Brussels, May hoped to obtain concessions from the EU over Northern Ireland. She wants the EU to agree to setting a deadline on how long Northern Ireland would be within the EU’s single market and customs regime.
But EU leaders say they are unwilling to budge and that any changes to the status of Northern Ireland would have to be hammered out in future trade negotiations between Britain and the EU.
No breakthroughs were announced Thursday after May met with EU leaders, but both sides agreed to hold more talks.
In brief remarks to reporters, May said she spoke to Tusk about his comments and told him they were “not helpful and caused widespread dismay in the United Kingdom.”
She also reiterated her determination “to deliver Brexit” and “deliver it on time.”
For his part, Tusk tweeted: “Still no breakthrough in sight. Talks will continue.”
In the meantime, May’s government is also discussing changes to its Brexit deal that could win over members of the Labour Party, the main opposition party.
On Wednesday, Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said in a letter to May he would back her Brexit deal if she made changes to it. He demanded keeping all of Britain, not just Northern Ireland, aligned with EU customs and to maintain close ties with the EU in many areas, including commerce, policing and workers’ rights.
His letter angered many Labour politicians and allies, most importantly the Scottish National Party. Many Labour members want to force Britain to hold a second referendum to decide whether Britain should remain in the EU.
In any event, Corbyn’s appeal to May looked futile. May has consistently ruled out keeping Britain within the EU’s customs union and many Tories want to break with the EU’s regulatory regime, which they see as restricting Britain’s ability to strike new trade deals around the world. They also see the EU as eroding Britain’s sovereignty.
Unless Britain and the EU reach a withdrawal agreement, there is a risk of chaos breaking out as trade is interrupted, shipments are held up at border checks, and the status of citizens is thrown into doubt.
All sides, except the most ardent supporters of Brexit, say they want to avoid such a chaotic scenario. There is a chance Britain and the EU could delay the exit, which is set for 11 p.m. on March 29.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)