We are prepared for Britain to cancel Brexit, EU council president Donald Tusk says

EU negotiators say deal is ‘the best we can do’ given Theresa May’s red lines

Jon Stone
Thursday 15 November 2018 17:30 GMT
Donald Tusk: 'We are also prepared for a no-deal scenario but of course we are best prepared for a no-Brexit scenario'

The EU is prepared for Britain to cancel Brexit, the president of the European Council has said.

Speaking in Brussels after a day of turmoil in Westminster, Donald Tusk said a “no-Brexit scenario” was still on the cards and that the EU would be ready for it.

It comes after EU officials warned that the controversial deal struck by Theresa May is “the best we can do” given the prime minister’s red lines and the bloc’s own rules.

Ms May admitted this week that no Brexit was a possibility if her deal is voted down – itself an increasingly likely prospect.

Mr Tusk said on Thursday morning that even with the agreement, Brexit was “lose-lose” and about “damage control”.

Speaking later in the day he went further, telling reporters in Brussels: “The EU is prepared for a final deal with the United Kingdom in November.

“We are also prepared for a no-deal scenario but of course we are best prepared for a no-Brexit scenario.”

Speaking early in the morning alongside chief negotiator Michel Barnier, Mr Tusk said he did not share Ms May’s assessment of Britain’s future prospects under the deal.

Of course we are best prepared for a no-Brexit scenario

Donald Tusk, president of European Council

“I took good note of prime minister May’s statement yesterday,” he said.

“Of course, I don’t share the prime minister’s enthusiasm about Brexit as such. Since the very beginning, we have had no doubt that Brexit is a lose-lose situation and that our negotiations are only about damage control.”

The comments by the Council president are likely to be ammunition for those in the UK – on both the Remain and Leave sides – who say the deal struck by Ms May gives little benefit to Britain.

A spate of ministers have resigned from the cabinet and Tory Brexiteers, Labour, and the DUP all say they would vote against it.

But the prospect of the UK staying in is thought to be the government’s biggest trump card in encouraging Tory backbenchers to vote for a plan they do not want.

Mr Barnier defended the fundamentals of the plan, stating: “What we have agreed at negotiators level is fair and balanced, organises the withdrawal in an orderly fashion, ensures no hard border on the island of Ireland, and lays the ground for an ambitious new partnership.”

The agreement effectively keeps the UK tied to swathes of EU regulations through “non-regression” and “level playing field” clauses, ramps up some checks and controls across the Irish sea, and is founded on the premise of a customs union with the bloc.

Senior EU officials warned that there could be no renegotiation of the agreement within the context of the PM’s red lines. Speaking in the EU capital on Thursday, one said the withdrawal agreement was “the best we can do” given the current constraints on both sides.

“I would say that for the negotiators, we are happy to stand over this agreement and we think this is the best we can do collectively with the constraints we have on both sides,” the senior official said when asked if the plan could be renegotiated if MPs voted it down.

“That is as far as I can go and I’m not going to speculate on any other scenario.”

Theresa May making a statement outside Downing Street on Wednesday

The official added that they would not “speculate” about the deal’s failure to pass, and said: “We think, on both sides, we have exhausted our margin of manoeuvre and our respective mandates, and if someone comes with wishes for changes they also have to take responsibility and what it does to the process.”

The latest line in the sand from Brussels stops short of ruling out a renegotiation, but effectively means that red lines would have to change for a substantially different deal to emerge.

European Parliament president Antonio Tajani said at lunchtime on Thursday that the deal reflected the fact “that any outcome will be inferior to full membership”.

On the continent, EU member states have also expressed some concerns about the nature of the future relationship – warning that it might give the UK a competitive advantage over countries in the single market.

Brexiteers including Jacob Rees-Mogg have slapped the deal and called for Theresa May to go 

French economy minister Bruno Le Maire said on Thursday his country would “be very careful to ensure that the agreement does not weaken the single market” before signing it off.

Mr Barnier himself said the future relationship portion of the agreement, in particular, was “not finished” and hinted there could be changes to the text, suggesting it needed to be “finalised”.

“This work will now be intense,” he said. “Our goal is to finalise this political declaration with the UK so the European Council can endorse it.”

Mr Tusk, who was speaking alongside, added: “The agreement is now being analysed by all the member states. By the end of this week, the EU27 ambassadors will meet in order to share their assessment of this agreement.

“They will also discuss the mandate for the commission to finalise the joint political declaration for the future declaration.

“The commission intends to agree the declaration with the political declaration by Tuesday. Over the following 48 hours the member states will have time to evaluate it.”

Campaigners have called for a second referendum, with 700,000 people marching in central London last month to demand one. Most polls show a slight movement towards remain since the referendum, but not yet a major shift.

Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, has also said the UK’s exit could be stopped, though party leader Jeremy Corbyn has said it is not within his party’s power.

Speaking outside Downing Street on Wednesday, Ms May issued a stark warning to Tory rebels that threats to tear down the proposals and her leadership could mean there is “no Brexit at all”.

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