European council President Donald Tusk has warned that the UK is line for either a “chaotic Brexit” or a delay to exiting the EU, despite Theresa May saying that a deal is “within our grasp”.
Tusk said that Theresa May would not get her current deal through the Commons, but said it wasn’t part of the “plan” to extend the two-year negotiation. However, he did say that a delay may be the only “rational solution”.
Shortly after the speech by Tusk, May spoke at the end of the first EU-League of Arab states summit, saying that a delay wouldn’t address the issues in the process, and said that they have a deal within their grasp.
“An extension to article 50, a delay in this process, doesn’t deliver a decision in parliament, it doesn’t deliver a deal. All it does is precisely what the word ‘delay’ says. Any extension of article 50 isn’t addressing the issues.
“We have it within our grasp. I’ve had a real sense from the meetings I’ve had here and the conversations I’ve had in recent days that we can achieve that deal.
“It’s within our grasp to leave with a deal on 29 March and that’s where all of my energies are going to be focused.”
Earlier, Juncker spoke of “good progress” in drafting additional legal assurances about the temporary nature of the Irish backstop, following his meeting with May at the summit in Egypt.
But Tusk offered a far more sombre analysis of the domestic political position facing May, given the EU’s refusal to reopen the withdrawal agreement, or to set a time-limit or unilateral exit mechanism on the Irish backstop.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is due to re-engage with the British team, including Downing Street’s senior Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins, and the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, in Brussels on Tuesday.
The two sides are drafting text that puts previous assurances of the temporary nature of the backstop, contained in letters from Tusk and Juncker late last year, into a legally-binding form.
The political declaration is being upgraded potentially to include further UK commitments on workers’ rights, and a document detailing the context in which a technological fix for the Irish border could supercede the all-UK customs union envisaged in the backstop is being worked upon.
After delaying the meaningful vote on the deal, scheduled for this week, May has said she will return to the Commons on 12 March to put it to MPs. Tusk, however, expressed the doubts widely felt in EU capitals about the chances of the package winning over rebellious MPs in the Conservative party, and the Democratic Unionist party.
The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, who also met May for talks in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, said he feared that the UK was “sleepwalking” to a no-deal Brexit. He warned May that the EU was determined to avoid granting a short extension only to have to repeatedly revisit the issue due to a lack of direction in London.