The UK faces the stark choice of either a hard Brexit or no Brexit, the president of the European council has said – the first time he has taken such a clear line on the likely outcome of the UK’s exit talks.
Just hours after the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had told a committee of MPs he was confident Britain could strike a better trade deal with the EU after Brexit,Donald Tusk used a speech in Brussels to scotch the idea that Britain can “have its cake and eat it”.
Speaking to an audience of policymakers in Brussels on Thursday, Tusk – who chairs EU leaders’ summits – said it was useless to speculate about a soft Brexit, in which the UK remained a member of the single market. “The only real alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit, even if today hardly anyone believes in such a possibility.”
Without naming Johnson, notorious in Brussels for his jokey phrase that Britain could have its cake and eat it, Tusk criticised “the proponents of the cake philosophy” who argued the UK could be part of the EU single market without bearing any of the costs.
“That was pure illusion, that one can have the EU cake and eat it too. To all who believe in it, I propose a simple experiment. Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate.”
Business groups, Labour, and moderate Conservative backbenchers have all urged the government to strike a deal that maintains many of the benefits of the single market.
Johnson had earlier told the cross-party foreign affairs select committee: “We are going to get a deal which is of huge value and possibly of greater value … We are going to get the best possible deal for trade in goods and services.”
But Tusk warned that Brexit would leave both Britain, and the rest of the EU, worse off. “There will be no cakes on the table, for anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar.”
His intervention is likely to heighten anxiety in the City about the potential costs of Brexit after the rapid sell-off of sterling in recent days, which was sparked after Theresa May appeared to signal at the start of the Conservative party conference that she favoured a clean break with the rest of the EU.
Senior ministers privately blame each other for exacerbating the market instability. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, is said to be concerned that some of his colleagues are failing to grasp the full scale of the risks the government faces as it navigates through the complex process of Brexit; he, in turn, is singled out by others for warning of an economic “rollercoaster” in his conference speech last week.
Johnson struck a defiantly optimistic tone at Thursday’s hearing, saying: “Those who prophesied doom have been proved wrong, and will continue to be proved wrong.” He also told MPs he believed the term “single market” was “increasingly useless”
Simon Tilford, deputy director of pro-EU thinktank the Centre for European Reform, said the markets would be scrutinising the government’s actions closely. “They’ve had a honeymoon, and it’s very clearly over,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that of the leading members of the government, only Philip Hammond understands the gravity of the situation.” He added: “What’s really spooked people is the suspicion that they really don’t know what they’re doing.”
Tusk stressed that EU leaders would conduct the negotiations in good faith, but said the UK could not get a better deal than if it remained in the EU. May has repeatedly insisted she will not give a “running commentary” on the progress of the talks with Britain’s EU partners, but Tusk’s speech underlined the fact that other participants are unlikely to hold back.
The prime minister has rejected the terms hard and soft Brexit as a false choice, promoted by those who have not accepted the result of the referendum, but her statement in her conference speech that she would insist on immigration controls and reject the oversight of the European court of justice was widely interpreted as a signal that she expects Britain to leave the single market.
Tusk said the leave campaign and its “Take back control” slogan showed the UK wanted to be free of EU law while rejecting free movement of people and contributions to the EU budget.
“This approach has definitive consequences, both for the position of the UK government and for the whole process of negotiations,” he said. “Regardless of magic spells, this means a de facto will to radically loosen relations with the EU – something that goes by the name of hard Brexit.”