EU chief Donald Tusk tried to exploit Tory splits over Europe last night by demanding that Theresa May abandon Chequers and accept a Canada-style trade deal.
The President of the European Council triggered a furious Government backlash with a cynical appeal to hardline Brexiteers who want the PM to abandon her blueprint.
Taunting Mrs May on Twitter after she accused EU leaders of not respecting the UK, Mr Tusk wrote: ‘From the very beginning, the EU offer has been a Canada+++ deal. Much further reaching on trade, internal security and foreign policy cooperation.
‘This is a true measure of respect. And this offer remains in place.’
Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Brexiteers who oppose Chequers immediately seized on Mr Tusk’s remarks, urging Mrs May to change tack.
But No10 hit back, saying there was ‘nothing new’ in the offer which would involve ‘annexing’ Northern Ireland to the EU – a prospect that is ‘not remotely acceptable’. The European Council leader also lashed out at Jeremy Hunt for likening the EU to the Soviet Union, calling the Foreign Secretary’s comparison ‘as unwise as it is insulting’.
However, he faced accusations of sexism after describing the Prime Minister’s response to the collapse of the Salzburg summit as ‘emotional’.
Helen Whately, Tory vice-chairman for women said: ‘This language just plays to outdated stereotypes about women. I wonder whether President Tusk would have used that “emotional” phrasing about a male prime minister?’
The acrimonious exchanges on the Brexit negotiations showed the two sides were no closer to an agreement, with time running out to secure a deal.
Just last month, Mr Tusk mocked Mrs May, tweeting a photo of the two of them as the PM helped herself to cake at the Salzburg summit, with the caption, ‘A piece of cake perhaps? Sorry, no cherries’ – a reference to a speech in which he said the UK could not cherry pick parts of the single market it liked.
The UK is poised to make an improved offer on the so-called Irish backstop, which is designed to avoid a hard border in Ireland if the two sides cannot agree an almost frictionless trade deal before the end of the transition period in December 2020.
The new British offer would see Great Britain and Northern Ireland remaining in a ‘customs arrangement’ with the EU, but with Northern Ireland more closely aligned to some single market rules than the rest of the UK.
It could also involve some regulatory checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to ensure they are aligned with EU standards.
Such checks already exist for some agricultural products, but the proposal is likely to enrage the Democratic Unionist Party, whose votes Theresa May relies upon.
The EU’s proposal for a backstop would simply see Northern Ireland stay in the customs union and parts of the single market, thereby effectively moving the bloc’s border with Britain to the Irish sea. The EU has also offered a Canada-style free trade deal that would again see Northern Ireland remain in the customs union. Mrs May has already ruled out both scenarios because they would amount to the breaking-up of the UK. Yesterday, a No10 source said: ‘This means annexing Northern Ireland and it is not remotely acceptable.’
Two weeks ago, Mr Tusk ambushed the PM at the Salzburg summit, saying Chequers ‘would not work’. Speaking in Brussels yesterday, he kept up the EU’s hardline stance, saying it would not ‘give up its fundamental values and key interests’, and appeared to align himself with Mrs May’s opponents by reiterating the offer of a Canada+++ deal.
He added pointedly: ‘Emotional arguments that stress the issue of dignity sound attractive but they do not facilitate agreement.’
He said both sides were continuing to try to find a solution to the vexed issue of the Irish border and a workable backstop.
Committed Brexiteers, who believe they can negotiate a Canada-style deal and solve the Irish border question with technology, welcomed Mr Tusk’s remarks.
Boris Johnson, who called for a Canada-style deal in his Tory conference speech, tweeted that Mr Tusk’s offer was ‘a superb way forward’, claiming it would ‘solve the Irish border problem and deliver a free trade based partnership that works well for both sides’.
Jacob Rees-Mogg said: ‘It is very encouraging as it shows the route to a good deal that could unite the country is available.’
Britain has been told the outline of a divorce deal must be in place by October 15, just two days before the EU summit starts.