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6 February 2019

The most important message from Donald Tusk isn’t about Brexiteers

What matters most is that most European politicians have given up on keeping the United Kingdom in the EU.

By Stephen Bush

Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, has caused uproar in the British press after telling journalists – and re-airing the message on Twitter – that there is a “special place in hell” for the politicians who campaigned for Brexit without a plan on how to implement the result.

Downing Street’s spokesman has criticised Tusk’s remarks, questioning whether the remark is “helpful”, while Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House, branded the remark “spiteful”; others have questioned what, exactly, Tusk is thinking or hopes to achieve with the remarks.

But the most significant statement made by the Council President – whose role is to represent and advocate for the combined interests of member states and the European Commission – didn’t relate to his feelings about the Brexit elite but his message to British Remainers, saying:

“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.”

It has been true for a long time that there is no appetite from either frontbench to revisit the referendum question and no majority to be found in Parliament to revisit it; but diplomats from the European Union’s other member states have long hoped that the optimistic predictions of pro-Remain politicians and commentators might yet bear fruit. Tusk, who regards the European Union as an essential plank of peace on the continent and is personally saddened by Brexit, has long been one of that group.

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But the defeat of Yvette Cooper’s amendment to extend Article 50 has underlined that there is no majority to be found in the Commons for anything which even smells faintly of stopping Brexit. And there is an increasing awareness that Jeremy Corbyn has no desire to re-open the referendum question either.

That’s the important context to Tusk’s remarks and key to understanding the thinking of member states. For the most part, European politicians no longer see keeping the UK within the European Union as a possible – and in some cases even as a desirable – outcome of the Brexit talks.

The question of “how will these remarks play among Britain’s Leave voters?” no longer plays a role as far as EU diplomats are concerned, to the extent that it ever did. The priority is about reassuring existing member states and apportioning blame among the electorate of the EU – that is, the EU excluding the UK, which almost everyone now expects to leave. (Don’t forget that English remains the lingua franca of the bloc, and will do long after the United Kingdom has left.)

That’s always been an aspect of the negotiations that both British Remainers and Leavers have struggled to understand. Part of the EU’s priority in these negotiations has always been that the Brexit talks must demonstrate that there is no better deal for a European nation than membership of the European Union. If that can be accomplished through the overturning of Brexit or a Brexit where the United Kingdom remains within the economic institutions of the EU, so much the better. But if it can’t, then the purpose simply becomes demonstrating that Brexit is a mess – and a mess caused by British politicians, not by the European Union.