Westminster is in a flurry this afternoon over Donald Tusk’s comments at a press conference this morning with Leo Varadkar. The European Council president used the platform to declare that he had been pondering of late what that ‘special place in hell’ for ‘those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it safely’ looked like. Tusk even went on to tweet out his comments – just in case anyone had missed the moment in the conference. Adding insult to injury the EU Council president has also been caught on mic laughing about the likely angry response from the British.
Tusk is at least right that his latest outburst has landed badly in the UK – with Andrea Leadsom the first Cabinet Minister to publicly criticise him in response. At a time when EU officials and leaders – including Angela Merkel – have been calling for compromise and goodwill on both sides to resolve the remaining issues and achieve a deal, Tusk’s comments appear to do the opposite. However, the most telling part of the press conference actually relates to something else he said. We already knew that Tusk isn’t much of a fan of Brexit – nor the people who campaigned for it. What is new is Tusk saying that those pushing for a second referendum – or simply for the UK to remain in the EU – are misguided:
‘I know that still a very great number of people in the UK, and on the continent, as well as in Ireland, wish for a reversal of this decision. I have always been with you, with all my heart.
But the facts are unmistakable. At the moment, the pro-Brexit stance of the UK prime minister, and the Leader of the Opposition, rules out this question.
Today, there is no political force and no effective leadership for Remain. I say this without satisfaction, but you can’t argue with the facts.’
This is significant. Up until now, there has been a belief among lead figures in the EU and at the Commission – including Tusk – that if they pushed the UK far enough, the result would not be no deal but a second referendum where Remain would win. Take for example Tusk’s tweet after the deal was defeated last month:
If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) January 15, 2019
It seems that the past few weeks of votes in the Commons and statements from Labour – have finally been enough to show Brussels that – for now – Remain is not a likely option. Instead, a majority in the Commons want the UK to leave the EU at the end of March – preferably with a deal. It follows that despite the anger from Tusk and his hell comments, today could actually mark a turning point for the negotiations.