A furious row has erupted between Brussels and British MPs, after an EU chief said there was a “special place in hell” for those who campaigned for Brexit without a plan on how to deliver it.
Donald Tusk made the explosive intervention during a statement in Brussels, where he appeared to rule out any chance of Britain staying in the bloc.
He tackled the “pro-Brexit” leadership of Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, admitting there was “no political force” or “effective leadership for Remain”.
The European Council president at first appeared to strike a diplomatic tone, urging Mrs May to bring a “realistic suggestion” to resolve the deadlock over Brexit on her trip to the Belgian capital on Thursday.
But he quickly followed it up with an incendiary attack on some Leave campaigners.
“I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely,” Mr Tusk said.
His guest, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, muttered as they left the stage in Brussels: “They’ll give you terrible trouble in the British press for that.”
“Yeah I know,” Mr Tusk replied as he laughed and nodded.
“But I know you’re right,” Mr Varadkar continued under his breath.
When asked whether the comments would contribute towards a positive atmosphere for the PM’s visit, her spokesman told reporters: “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.”
His words caught MPs off guard, as Mrs May and Mr Corbyn’s stand-ins sparred at Prime Minister’s Questions.
DUP leader Arlene Foster accused Mr Tusk of being “deliberately provocative”.
“Clearly the pressure is beginning to mount in Brussels,” she said.
Ms Foster added: “I think it was deliberately provocative I have to say, very disrespectful to those of us who voted to leave the European Union. He should reflect on what he had to say.
“As I said to the prime minister this morning, this is a time for cool heads, it is a time to have focus and it is a time to try and find solutions, not to be disrespectful to those of us who voted in a democratic way to leave the European Union.”
Sammy Wilson, the party’s Brexit spokesperson, branded Mr Tusk a “devilish, trident-wielding Euro-maniac”.
Conservative MP Mark Francois told Sky News: “If I’m to be sent to hell for fighting for my country and standing up for what I believe in, then I will see Donald Tusk when I get there.”
Tory Brexiteer Peter Bone also called it a “completely outrageous insult”.
Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage said the comment showed Brussels was “scared” and “rattled” about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, which he said would hit European economies.
But Conservative Remainer MP Anna Soubry said Mr Tusk’s comments would be “wildly misquoted”, and that he was “speculating about the people who led Leave not the millions of good people they conned”.
Another, Philip Lee, said the comments were “based on reality” and also attacked “reckless, shallow politicians who promised a Brexit they’d no credible plan to deliver”.
Mrs May is due to meet Mr Tusk on her trip to Brussels on Thursday, where she will press him to re-open negotiations on the deal struck back in November.
She will also meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
Ahead of those talks, Downing Street said it was down to the EU to give ground to ensure a deal is agreed.
The PM’s official spokesman said “there are going to have to be changes made in order to address concerns which MPs have on the backstop”.
This is the insurance policy to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and is seen as the major stumbling block to Mrs May getting a deal through parliament.
The PM has pledged to secure changes to the arrangement, but the EU has already said it cannot be changed.
And the mood music from top EU figures on Wednesday was not positive for Mrs May.
Mr Juncker said alternative arrangements “can never replace the backstop” and rejected the idea of Britain having a unilateral exit mechanism.
Mr Varadkar dismissed British MPs voting for “alternative arrangements”, saying the Commons majority for it “probably only exists because alternative arrangements can mean whatever you want them to mean”.
Following a two-day visit to Northern Ireland, which included a series of meetings with political leaders, Mrs May will head to Dublin for talks with Mr Varadkar on Friday.