Donald Tusk poured petrol on the Brexit negotiations today after he claimed there is a ‘special place in hell’ for those who fought to get the UK out of the EU.
As the deadlock with Brussels deepened dramatically, the European council chief lashed out at Leave campaigners who had no idea how to sever ties ‘safely’.
Rubbing salt the wound, Mr Tusk was then caught on mic chuckling at a press conference when Irish premier Leo Varadkar whispered to him that the British would ‘give you terrible trouble’ over the jibe.
Incandescent Brexiteers hit back in moments as the comments threatened to throw the negotiations into a tailspin. They accused Mr Tusk of ‘inflammatory’ language and insisting they do in fact have a plan to build a ‘global Britain’.
The remarks were raised in the Commons by Tory MP Peter Bone, who branded them an ‘insult’ to the British people.
Mr Tusk and Mr Varadkar met in Brussels today before Mrs May arrives tomorrow in a desperate hope of re-writing the divorce deal just 50 days before exit day.
Mrs May is in Northern Ireland today meeting all five main parties to find a way forward on the Irish border backstop. She is missing PMQs for the talks.
Alliance leader Naomi Long was the first to emerge, warning Mrs May had given no details of what she would ask for in Brussels.
In London, work is continuing on ‘alternative arrangements’ that could allow an invisible border by using technology to track people and goods crossing the border.
In a glimmer of hope, it was claimed today Angela Merkel is preparing a last minute intervention to pressure Dublin to accept a hi-tech solution to the Irish border if Britain can offer one.
The German chancellor is desperate to finalise a Brexit and insisted yesterday there was still time to break the impasse.
The Prime Minister enraged Brexiteers yesterday by admitting the backstop cannot be removed by this week’s push for a new deal, only re-written.
Tory MP Nadine Dorries warned Mrs May today it was ‘remove the backstop or no deal’.
Donald Tusk (pictured today with Leo Varadkar) said there must be a ‘special place in hell for those who promoted Brexit’ without a plan for the Irish border today
In an incendiary claim that threatens to blow up Theresa May’s hopes of a renegotiation of the Irish border, the EU Council President used a press conference with the Irish premier to say he ‘wondered’ what the place looks like
Theresa May (pictured arriving at Stormont House today) will meet all five of the major Northern Ireland political parties today as she scrambles to find a way through the Brexit deadlock
Angela Merkel is preparing a last minute intervention to pressure Dublin to accept a hi-tech solution to the Irish border if Britain can offer one, it was claimed today
In a message to Mrs May, Mr Tusk said: ‘Give us a deliverable guarantee for peace in Northern Ireland and the UK will leave the EU as a trusted friend.
‘I hope that the UK Government will present ideas that will both respect this point of view and at the same time command a stable and clear majority in the House of Commons.
‘I strongly believe that a common solution is possible and I will do everything in my power to find it.’
Mr Tusk confirmed that the EU continues to prepare for a possible no-deal outcome.
He concluded: ‘By the way, I have been wondering what that special place in Hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan to carry it (through) safely.’
Mr Varadkar added that while he was ‘open to further discussions’ with the UK Government, the Withdrawal Agreement remained ‘the best deal possible’.
Who is the PM meeting today?
Mrs May will head to Stormont House to have bilateral meetings with Northern Ireland’s five biggest political parties:
- The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – Supports Brexit but is opposed to the backstop on the Irish border.
- Sinn Féin – Opposed to Brexit but in favour of the backstop to get a deal. Warns it could mean a Border Poll on a united Ireland
- SDLP – Opposed to Brexit but in favour of the backstop to get a deal
- Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) – In favour of delivering Brexit despite campaigning for Remain but opposed to the backstop
- Alliance Party – Opposed to Brexit but supports keeping the backstop
He said: ‘While we expect that the backstop will never be used, we agreed again today that it is needed as a legal guarantee to ensure that there is no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland while protecting the integrity of our European single market and customs union.
‘I think the events in London and the instability in British politics in recent weeks demonstrates exactly why we need a legal guarantee and a solution that is operable, that we know will work and will last.’
Mr Varadkar said that if the UK’s intentions for the future relationship ‘were to evolve’, the EU would be ‘prepared to adapt the content and level of ambition in the Political Declaration while respecting its established principles’.
He added that he had agreed with Mr Tusk that ‘in light of the ongoing uncertainty in London and the fast-approaching deadline’ preparations for a no-deal Brexit must intensify.
Mr Tusk’s intervention produced an immediate furious reaction from Tory Brexiteers within moments of the remark
In response to Mr Tusk’s intervention, Brexiteer Tory MP Simon Clarke said: ‘We couldn’t have reckoned with the obtuse response we’re received from you.
What is Plan C?
Under Plan C, the UK would ask for the transition period to run for an extra year to the end of 2021 and EU citizens living in Britain would have their rights protected.
There is then a two-pronged approach to the negotiations.
First, the UK would demand the EU negotiates a new Irish border backstop that is acceptable to Brexiteers.
They suggest a technology-based system for goods crossing the Irish border that has already been rejected by the EU.
If this proves impossible, the group would then suggest a no deal exit based on keeping the transition period from the existing plan in return for paying some of the divorce bill.
Both sides would then use the three year transition period to prepare for an exit on basic World Trade Organisation rules, while negotiating a final trade deal.
If it went ahead, Brexiteers would get to remove the backstop they say is unacceptable while Remainers still get the transition period they say is essential.
‘Comments like this push me towards supporting a clean break and No Deal.’
Andrea Jenkyns said: ‘Mr Tusk, we have a plan! We are not restricted in our Little EU’er mentality.
‘Bring on Global Britain, we will embrace Global Free trade. Whilst you will continue to see the inflexible EU trading bloc in collective, perpetual decline.’
Paul Scully added: ‘Shame one of the many EU leaders has chosen inflammatory language and a skewed position.
‘Most proposing Brexit made the reasonable assumption that we’d solve the border issue by working out the future trading arrangements at the same time as withdrawal. EU prevented that.’
Sources in Berlin revealed to The Times today German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing Brussels to make a deal and is ‘very hopeful’ of progress.
The source said: ‘She is waiting for London to come forward with concrete proposals about how it would work.
‘Dublin will come under a lot of pressure over the coming weeks to work constructively with London.’
Speaking in Tokyo yesterday, Mrs Merkel insisted that ‘from a political point of view, there is still time’ to negotiate on the Brexit deal, particularly on ‘such a precise problem’ as the Irish border.
Party leader Robin Swann and other members of Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) arrive at Stormont House in Belfast today ahead of their meeting with May
Tory MP Nadine Dorries warned Mrs May today it was ‘remove the backstop or no deal’
The new round of whirlwind diplomacy comes as it emerged today Cabinet ministers have considered an eight-week delay to exit day to ensure the laws for a deal are in place.
It would mean Brexit happens on May 24 instead of March 29. Rhere are several Bills – on issues including immigration and trade – which must pass, as well as hundreds of other pieces of minor legislation.
Mrs May has insisted Brexit must happen on time and repeated her position at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting.
The Prime Minister yesterday vowed to ensure there is no return to the ‘borders of the past’ as she delivered a speech in Belfast with negotiations at a critical stage.
She said the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic did not have to ‘rely’ on the EU to avoid a hard line being drawn between them.
‘The UK government will not let that happen,’ she said. ‘I will not let that happen.’
She infuriated Tory Eurosceptics by saying she is not proposing to scrap the backstop from the Brexit deal altogether – despite previously acknowledging it must be replaced with ‘alternative arrangements’.
Ms Dorries, a leading Brexiteer warned today: ‘A legally binding limit won’t pass in Parliament. The Prime Minister would suffer a further crushing defeat.
‘It’s open the Withdrawal Agreement, remove the backstop, or No Deal.’
Mrs May also hinted there was little prospect of technological solutions proposed by Brexiteers being ready in the short term.
While saying she was ready to ‘look’ at ideas, she added: ‘These must be ones that can be made to work for the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.’
After the speech a senior source on the Tory European Research Group (ERG) issued a thinly-disguised threat, saying: ‘Even if she doesn’t mean what she said, we still do.’
The Irish Government accused the Prime Minister of harbouring unrealistic expectations over the backstop.
The mechanism has polarised nationalists and unionists.
Many unionists believe the ‘insurance policy’ to preserve a frictionless frontier on the island of Ireland could threaten the integrity of the UK if Northern Ireland’s customs regulations varied from Great Britain after Brexit.
Nationalists and many business leaders fear major disruption to trade and a hard border threatening peace process gains if no deal is struck and the backstop is not triggered.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (pictured last night in Belfast) has accused Mrs May of failing to offer any alternative to the backstop ahead of today’s talks
Ministers to study state of the art ‘drive through’ border plan designed by Japanese tech giant Fujitsu to see if it could resolve the Irish border
Ministers are set to study a state of the art ‘drive through’ border plan for Northern Ireland designed by the Japanese tech-giant Fujitsu, it emerged today.
The proposal involves GPS tagging vehicles and shipments so they trigger an invisible ‘geo fence’ when they cross the border to or from the Republic.
The idea is to ensure all the necessary customs checks can be carried out where goods are made to ensure there is no need for physical policing at the border.
But it would require surveillance systems to work so could fall foul of Theresa May‘s commitment to avoid infrastructure on the border.
There are fears using cameras or drones would awaken memories of The Troubles while having different standards on either side of the border could fuel smuggling.
Ministers are set to study a state of the art ‘drive through’ border plan for Northern Ireland designed by the Japanese tech-giant Fujitsu, it emerged today
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay is said to be studying the proposals amid a scramble to find a way of running the Irish border after Brexit
Brexiteers have pinned their hopes on a technology based solution as an alternative to the ‘backstop’ in the current Brexit divorce deal.
The backstop effectively keeps Britain in the EU customs union and obliges Northern Ireland to follow some single market rules – eliminating the need for border checks.
It is designed to only come into force until a final trade deal is agreed but Brexit supporters fear it could become a permanent solution.
The Fujitsu plan has been under development for around 10 months and is being looked at afresh by a working group of MPs and officials, the Sun revealed today.
Fujitsu has reportedly said a test version of the system could be deployed on the border in time for exit day on March 29.
A working prototype could be essential to proving to the EU it is a viable ‘alternative arrangement’ that could replace the existing backstop.
A Tory minister involved in the talks told the paper: ‘Given that we can land a probe the size of a fridge on Mars, it can’t be beyond us to devise an imperceptible system for a 310 mile border’.
An 11-page briefing marked ‘Restricted – Commercial in Confidence’, reveals the plan suggests;
- Tariffs would be paid online in advance, by registered users who would be known as Authorised Economic Operators
- Police would take new measures to stamp out smuggling. Around £1bn a year is lost in duty every year and the new system would monitoring every goods vehicle that crosses the border
- Customs officials to carry out spot check on suspicious vehicles be ordering them to re-route to inspection depots away from the border
- Suspect vehicles to be identified and flagged by the Artificial Intelligence-driven analysis which looks at journeys as well as a wide array of other information, including social media posts.