Britain has to choose between a "hard Brexit" or no Brexit at all, the president of the European Council has warned, dismissing one of the key claims of the Leave campaign that the UK could "have its cake and eat it".
Donald Tusk set out "the brutal truth" of what the decision of the June referendum meant for the continent's future, describing the push against Theresa May by MPs in the House of Commons for a "soft Brexit" as "useless".
He said there could be "no compromises" on retaining benefits such as access to the single market and customs union, while rejecting the free movement of people. Mr Tusk will be the chair of all summits between EU leaders to discuss Brexit negotiations.
"In my opinion the only real alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit, even if today hardly anyone believes in such a possibility," Mr Tusk told policymakers in Brussels.
The speech at the European Policy Centre appeared to be aimed largely at worried EU leadership, who have made clear that Britain must suffer from its decision to leave if the rest of the bloc is to survive.
Mr Tusk said the process would indeed be "in the first instance, painful for Britons", but he also said it will be "a loss for everyone" concerned.
Speaking at the European Policy Centre, he said the Leave campaign's mantra of "take back control" had “definitive consequences” for the Government and the negotiation process.
“This means a de facto will to radically loosen relations with the EU, something that goes by the name of hard Brexit," he said.
He dismissed the now-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's “cake philosophy” - being “pro-having it and pro-eating it” - as “pure illusion”.
“The brutal truth is that Brexit will be a loss for all of us,” Mr Tusk said. “There will be no cakes on the table for anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar.”
Mr Tusk said it was “useless to speculate about soft Brexit”, where the UK would retain the closest possible ties to the bloc after leaving.
He said he would defend the interests of the 27 remaining members of the EU but “I am afraid that no such outcome exists that will benefit either side”.
And in an extraordinary intervention, he seemed to suggest there was still hope for Britain to reverse the referendum decision.
Mr Tusk said it would be for the UK to assess the outcome of the negotiations and “determine if Brexit is really in their interest”.
The council president added that other EU leaders would be sympathetic if the Government decided to climb down from the Brexit brink.
“If we have a chance to reverse this negative process, we will find allies,” he said.
Mr Tusk said the Article 50 process could be halted by Ms May's Government even once it had been triggered.
His comments came as Mr Johnson came under fire after suggesting that Britain can get a Brexit trade deal that is “of greater value” to the UK economy than access to the EU single market.
The Foreign Secretary told MPs that the concept of the single market was “increasingly useless”, as the UK sought to extend its trade links around the world.
But critics of “hard Brexit” warned that loss of access would harm British businesses by denying them a marketplace of 500 million consumers free of tariffs and regulatory obstacles to trade.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr Johnson conceded that negotiating a new relationship might take longer than the two years envisaged under Article 50 of the EU treaties. But he insisted he was “absolutely confident” that a good deal would be reached.
Mr Tusk also suggested the timetable was “optimistic”, adding “I think the process will be much longer than two years.”
Responding to Mr Johnson's comments, Conservative former minister Anna Soubry, of the Open Britain campaign, said: “If there's a deal of 'greater value' out there than single market membership, then businesses and economists have not come across it. The Government needs to provide concrete evidence before it pulls us out of our home market of 500 million customers.”
Mr Johnson said he thought Britain had done “the right thing” in voting to leave the EU on June 23, and told the committee: “I think those who prophesied doom before the referendum have been proved wrong and I think they will continue to be proved wrong.
“Obviously it will take time before the full benefits of Brexit appear.”
He insisted that Britain can remain a “lodestar and magnet” for talented migrants from around the globe even after it introduces tougher immigration rules following Brexit.
And he suggested he expects European leaders to back down on their insistence that access to the single market is dependent on allowing free movement of people.
“The idea that the Brownian movement of individuals, of citizens across the surface of Europe, is somehow there on tablets of stone in Brussels is a complete nonsense,” said Mr Johnson. “It's a fiction.
“We are taking back control of our borders as we said we would, and that's what we will do.
“It doesn't mean that we are going to be hostile to people of talent who want to live and work here. I think it is extremely important that we continue to send out a signal of openness and welcome to the many brilliant people who help to drive the London economy and the UK economy.”
Additional reporting by agencies
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