SALZBURG — U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May warned pointedly on Thursday that she was prepared to walk away from the Brexit talks — bringing an acrimonious end to an EU leaders’ summit that was supposed to showcase newfound unity and cooperation in working toward a deal.
“Let nobody be in any doubt, as I’ve always said, we are preparing for no deal,” May, visibly angry, said at a news conference Thursday afternoon just moments after European Council President Donald Tusk declared that her Brexit plan “will not work.”
Appearing defiant, May told reporters: “If we get to the position where it is not possible to reach a deal then the British people can be confident that we will have done what is necessary to ensure we make a success of leaving the European Union, regardless of the terms on which we do so.”
May’s warning came after Tusk and the EU27’s most powerful leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, once again forcefully rejected the central component of May’s plan for a post-Brexit relationship. They reiterated that the EU would not agree to a free-trade area for goods but not services.
“While there are positive elements in the Chequers proposal, the suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work,” Tusk said at the informal summit’s closing news conference, “not least because it will risk undermining the single market.”
“I am negotiating hard in the interests of the British people. I am negotiating to deliver on what the British people voted for in the referendum” — Theresa May
French President Emmanuel Macron said that Brexit shows “it’s not so easy to leave the EU, it’s not without a cost, it’s not without consequences … [Chequers] is not acceptable because it doesn’t respect the integrity of the single market.”
The remarks threaten to blow up the U.K. prime minister’s chances of reaching a divorce agreement with Brussels acceptable to her party and parliament before Britain’s exit from the bloc in March. Tusk’s intervention will be jumped on by Conservative Brexiteers as further evidence that May should abandon her Chequers plan altogether and begin serious preparations for a no-deal exit if a much looser arrangement cannot be reached for the whole for the U.K.
May now has a torrid 10 days of political drama to survive before the Conservative Party conference meets in Birmingham on September 30, in which she will face furious pressure to yield to her euroskeptic critics.
Macron used his own press conference to take a swipe at some of those in her party arguing for a harder line. “Brexit is the choice of the British people, a choice pushed by those who predicted easy solutions … they are liars, they left the next day so they didn’t have to manage it,” he said in an apparent reference to former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson amongst others.
EU officials — including Tusk in an article published in several European newspapers in August — have warned for weeks that they viewed May’s plan as threatening the integrity of the EU’s single market and violating one of the pillars of its four fundamental freedoms: the free movement of workers.
While EU opposition was not new, the context of the remarks — after May addressed her colleagues at a dinner on Wednesday and urged further compromise — seemed to strike a significant blow and to raise the danger of a breakdown in negotiations.
Still, Tusk proclaimed himself “more optimistic” that agreement would be reached on a withdrawal treaty after the summit in Salzburg. And he, like other leaders, stressed that there were other aspects of May’s proposals, particularly on security and foreign policy, that they supported.
Pressed on the point, Tusk said that the EU simply would not back away from its red line on the integrity of the single market, and the sanctity of its four freedoms, including free movement of workers, which the U.K. says it will not allow after Brexit.
“We need to compromise on both sides,” Tusk said. “This is the very essence of negotiations.”
“Today we were all agreed that there can be no compromises on the single market” — Angela Merkel
“It must be clear that there are some issues where we are not ready to compromise, first of all this is our four fundamental freedoms and single market, this is why we remain sceptical and critical when it comes to this part of the Chequers proposal. The Irish question remains our priority too, and for this we need not only good will,” he said.
Tusk said the EU was aiming to complete the withdrawal treaty in October, and in a move clearly designed to maintain pressure on London, the EU leaders did not schedule an additional summit for November as even Tusk had predicted.
He added though, that if such a summit were needed it would be held on the weekend of November 17 and 18.
Merkel reiterated that the EU viewed the integrity of its single market as non-negotiable. “We’ve already come a long way with the Withdrawal Agreement,” Merkel said at her own news conference in Salzburg. “We still have a lot of work to do regarding the future relations and the necessary political declaration.”
“Today we were all agreed that there can be no compromises on the single market,” she said.
EU27 leaders discussed Brexit over lunch, without May in the room. Tusk and May then met privately immediately before they held their separate news conferences.
May, clearly rattled, told reporters that her plan was the only reasonable one on the table.
“There is no solution that will resolve the Northern Irish border that is not based on the frictionless movement of goods,” she said. “Our white paper remains the only serious and credible proposition on the table for achieving that objective. There is a lot of hard work to be done, but if the political will is there on the other side I am confident we will reach a deal, which is in the EU’s interests as well as the U.K.’s.”
“I am negotiating hard in the interests of the British people. I am negotiating to deliver on what the British people voted for in the referendum,” said May.
Andrew Gray contributed reporting.