The European Union’s frustration with the British government has erupted into the open, prompting a vicious war of words across the Channel as Theresa May heads to Brussels to try to salvage her #Brexit deal.
Unscripted comments from Donald Tusk, president of the European council, warning of a “special place in hell” for those who pushed for Brexit “without even a sketch of a plan” set off a furious reaction in London.
The comments came just 24 hours before May is due to sit down with Tusk to try and hammer out a way forward. The leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom – a Brexiter – described Tusk’s comments as “spiteful”.
“I think that what he has said is pretty unacceptable and pretty disgraceful,” she said.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: “It’s this sort of arrogance that drives antipathy towards the EU. We are a country that upholds the result of democratic votes. Our EU partners need to respect that.”
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, tweeted that Tusk’s remarks were “out of order”.
Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, condemned Tusk for being “deliberately provocative [and] very disrespectful”. DUP MP Sammy Wilson described the EU leader as a “devilish Euro-maniac”.
A spokesman for May said: “I think it is a question for Donald Tusk as to whether he considers the use of that kind of language to be helpful. I appreciate that was difficult this morning as he didn’t take any questions.”
The row threatens to poison an already tense day of meetings for the prime minister, who is due to hold talks with Tusk, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt.
Verhofstadt tweeted of the Brexiters: “Well, I doubt Lucifer would welcome them, as after what they did to Britain, they would even manage to divide hell.”
It will be the first time May meets the EU’s most senior officials since her withdrawal agreement was rejected in the House of Commons last month by an historic 230 votes.
May is seeking “alternative arrangements” to replace the Irish backstop, a time-limit on the customs union it envisages or a unilateral exit mechanism.
But following meetings with the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in Brussels, Tusk and Juncker both resolutely rejected any change to the backstop.