The EU’s frustration with Westminster erupted into the open as Donald Tusk warned of a “special place in hell” for politicians who promoted Brexit “without even a sketch of a plan”, just 24 hours before his crunch meeting with Theresa May in Brussels.
The European council president insisted that the EU was not “making any new offer” to Britain, and demanded a “realistic suggestion” from the prime minister on how to end the impasse.
Speaking to journalists after meeting the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, Tusk also took aim at Jeremy Corbyn, claiming there was a leadership void at the heart of the remain movement.
Tusk said he knew there were “still a very great number of people” in the UK, on the continent and in Ireland who wanted to reverse the decision. “I have always been with you with all my heart,” he said, “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.”
The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, added that the prime minister knew even before arriving in Brussels that the bloc would not “reopen discussion on the backstop”.
“The so-called alternative arrangements can never replace the backstop,” Juncker said in comments that appeared to rule out the changes May is coming to Brussels to seek.
“We need the backstop, we need the withdrawal agreement,” he said. “When it comes to future relationships we can look at alternative arrangements but they will never replace the backstop. There is no way you can have a unilateral jumping out of the backstop because the backstop is needed as a guarantee. A safety net is not a safety net if it can be destroyed by the unilateral action of one party.”
A photograph was later circulated of Juncker and Varadkar reading a large “thank you card” from a family in Dublin thanking the EU for its solidarity.
The card said Ireland was drawing strength “from your word and that of your colleagues”. It added: “Britain does not care about peace in Northern Ireland. To them it’s a nuisance.”
The developments prompted a frosty response from Downing Street and open anger from the Democratic Unionist party and other Brexit advocates.
Asked whether the comments would help pave the way for agreement with May, the prime minister’s spokesman 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 leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, said Tusk’s decision to reiterate the comments in a tweet was “spiteful”. She told the BBC: “I think that what he has said is pretty unacceptable and pretty disgraceful.”
The DUP MP Sammy Wilson was considerably less restrained, tweeting a statement in which he called Tusk a “devilish Euro-maniac” whose comments would increase the resolve of those wanting to leave the EU.
The former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who is planning to launch a new pro-Brexit movement, tweeted in response to Tusk: “After Brexit we will be free of unelected, arrogant bullies like you – sounds like heaven to me.”
During his day of meetings in the Belgian capital, Varadkar expressed a widespread view in Brussels that “the instability in British politics in recent weeks demonstrates exactly why we need a legal guarantee and a solution that is operable that we know will work, will last”.
Varadkar, who is due to have dinner with May on Friday evening, said the EU had been flexible, adding: “Perhaps it’s for those who have created the problem to be creative now.”
Asked about May’s aim in coming to Brussels, Varadkar said: “I do have a concern around this idea of alternative arrangements.
“We need to bear in mind that this majority that perhaps existed or did exist in the House of Commons for alternative arrangements probably only existed because alternative arrangements can mean whatever you want them to mean.
“I don’t believe that would have passed if people actually had to get into the detail of what alternative arrangements mean or might mean.”
The latest remarks pile pressure on May, who is due in Brussels on Thursday to meet Tusk and Juncker.
On Tuesday, the prime minister raised the ire of hardline Eurosceptic backbenchers when she said there was “no suggestion” the UK would leave the EU without a backstop, though she was still seeking changes.