SALZBURG, Austria — U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May warned Thursday that she is prepared to walk away from the Brexit talks — bringing an acrimonious end to an EU leaders’ summit that was supposed to showcase newfound unity and cooperation in working toward a deal. “Let nobody be in any doubt, as I’ve always said, we are preparing for no deal,” May, visibly angry, said at a news conference just moments after European Council President Donald Tusk declared at a gathering of EU leaders in Salzburg, Austria, that her Brexit plan “will not work.” Appearing defiant, May told reporters she still has hope. “I believe there is willingness to do a deal,” she said. But the prime minister quickly added that she and the U.K. would be ready to walk away. “If we get to the position where it is not possible to reach a deal,” she said, “then the British people can be confident that we will have done what is necessary to ensure we make a success of leaving the European Union, regardless of the terms on which we do so.” “I am negotiating hard in the interests of the British people,” May said. May’s warning came after Tusk and the EU27’s most powerful leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, forcefully rejected the central component of May’s plan for a post-Brexit relationship at a trio of news conferences. They reiterated that the EU would not agree to May’s plan for a free-trade area for goods but not services, which they said would divide the EU’s single market and grant the U.K. preferential benefits over EU members. “While there are positive elements in the Chequers proposal, the suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work,” Tusk said at the informal summit’s closing news conference, “not least because it will risk undermining the single market.” In a move clearly aimed at pressuring London, Tusk also said EU leaders are standing firm in their demand that negotiators complete a Brexit withdrawal treaty by October, and would not call a special summit for November unless it becomes necessary.
“I am negotiating hard in the interests of the British people. I am negotiating to deliver on what the British people voted for in the referendum” — Theresa May
Tusk’s aides insisted that he merely restated positions that the EU, and its chief negotiator Michel Barnier, have articulated repeatedly over the more than two months since May first unveiled her proposal. The aides said that Tusk did not in any way intend to be provocative. But while the EU opposition is not new, the context of the remarks — at a major summit, after May addressed her colleagues at a dinner on Wednesday and urged further compromise — seem to strike a significant blow, raising the risk of a breakdown in negotiations. It also appeared to put May in severe political jeopardy at home, just 10 days before the Conservative Party conference. Critics of May’s handling of Brexit, including the former Brexit secretary, David Davis, and the leading Brexiteer MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, quickly demanded that she abandon her Chequers plan. “Chequers goes pop,” Rees-Mogg gloated on Twitter.
More broadly, it is clear once again that Brussels and London might as well be in different universes when it comes to how officials see and hear the debate over Britain’s withdrawal. May’s reaction left a sense that she felt ambushed, even though she had met one-on-one with Tusk just minutes before his news conference. EU officials, in turn, were stunned that May was the least bit surprised by their remarks.