Theresa May travelled to meet EU leaders in Salzburg with a defiant message: choose her Chequers plan or there’s no-deal. However, two days later, she left with a similarly blunt response: change the Chequers plan or prepare for no-deal.
European Council president Donald Tusk delivered the ultimatum at a press conference to conclude the summit: “Without a clear and precise solution for the Irish question and for the whole context of our future relations it will be difficult to even imagine a positive process after October.”
The European Council on 18 October is the deadline for substantial progress towards a Brexit deal, giving the prime minister just 28 days to find a plan palatable to her party, MPs and the EU.
EU leaders were supposed to sign-off this week on an additional November summit to give more time for the chance of a Brexit deal.
But Tusk said that is now contingent on May reworking her Chequers plan by October. “For us, this is the condition to continue this process in November,” he said.
Tusk’s comments came after May’s speech at the summit dinner on Wednesday evening — a chance to circumvent the legalistic EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and pitch her Chequers plan directly to her continental counterparts.
May was hopeful she would find enough support in the room to force Barnier into compromise – at least among the likes of Hungary and Poland, whose governments are not on good terms with the EU leadership.
“What we are proposing is a fair arrangement that will work for the EU’s economy as well as for the UK’s without undermining the single market,” May told them.
But EU leaders sounded unconvinced as they filed into the summit on Thursday morning.
French president Emmanuel Macron said, “we have very clear principles about the integrity of the single market.”
He then told reporters “it was a good and brave step by the prime minister. But we all agreed on this today, the proposals in their current state are not acceptable, especially on the economic side of it. The Chequers plan cannot be take it or leave it.”
And Tusk suggested to the media that she had failed to convince a single EU leader.
“Everybody shared the view that while there are positive elements in the Chequers proposal the suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work,” he said.
“Not least because it risks underlining the single market… It must be clear that there are some issues where we are not ready to compromise and first of all this is our four fundamental freedoms and the single market.”
May tried to take the setback in her step, welcoming clarity on the deadline for a deal and promising to bring forward new plans on how to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
However, at her own news conference, she appeared shaken by a barrage of questions about the EU’s explicit rejection of the main pillars of her Chequers plan.
She accepted “concerns have been raised” but insisted it remains the “only serious and credible plan on the table” for avoiding a hard border in Ireland and maintaining frictionless trade.
“There’s a lot of hard work to be done,” she said. “But I believe there is a willingness to a do deal.
May added the UK was prepared for a no-deal scenario if the EU ends Brexit talks in October.
Assuring the media that the EU was also prepared, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said: “Don’t worry, be happy.”
UK officials played down the EU’s tough talk on Chequers as a long-expected negotiating tactic that would not throw the prime minister off course.