THERESA MAY’S Brexit strategy was thrown back in her face yesterday as EU leaders boasted they are better prepared for a no deal than she is.
The prime minister’s personal plea for the 27 heads of government to back her Chequers proposals was greeted with a resounding ‘no’ at a summit in Salzburg, Austria.
She now has just four weeks to change their minds or come up with an emergency plan B if she is to avoid a no-deal outcome.
‘We once again reconfirmed our full unity,’ said European Council president Donald Tusk after Mrs May addressed the leaders.
‘Everyone shared the view that, while there are positive elements in the Chequers proposal, the suggested framework for economic co-operation will not work.’
The leaders also said the UK would suffer more than the EU from a no-deal Brexit — and claimed Mrs May was taking the prospect too lightly.
‘I think we have made more preparations for a no deal than the UK has,’ said Dutch PM Mark Rutte.
‘No deal is not my working assumption,’ said EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. ‘But if it does happen, we are prepared in detail for all the consequences.
‘So don’t worry. Be happy, don’t worry.’ Mrs May was buoyed ahead of the talks when the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said he hoped a deal could be sealed in six to eight weeks.
He also promised an offer to allay fears about a border being created between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland.
But no new plan emerged yesterday and the two sides still cannot agree.
Mr Tusk said there had to be a ‘backstop’ to ensure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, even if the UK is unable to forge a new EU trade deal and customs checks are brought back.
But Mrs May, whose preferred backstop option is keeping the UK linked to the EU customs union for an extended period while the issue is solved, continued to insist that she will not allow a border in the Irish sea.
‘The backstop cannot divide the UK into two customs territories,’ she said. ‘If there are concerns about what we have put forward, let’s hear what those concerns are.’
France’s president Emmanuel Macron said the EU’s backstop should be ‘precisely preserved’ in any agreement.
The prime minister’s economic plans, which would end free movement and keep frictionless trade in goods but not services, were given equally short shrift.
Mr Tusk, who has insisted Britain cannot ‘cherry-pick’ benefits of EU membership to retain, took a pop at the prime minister by putting a photo of them choosing cakes at the summit on Instagram. He wrote: ‘A piece of cake perhaps? But no cherries.’
Mr Macron said Mrs May had tried to tell the leaders ‘take it or leave it’ but added: ‘The proposals in their current state are not acceptable. We all agreed on this today.’
He also lashed out at the ‘liars’ of Brexit — insisting Britain would lose out.
‘Those who explain that everything is going to be alright are liars,’ he said. ‘They left the day after so as not to have to deal with it.’ He did not specify who he was referring to but Ukip leader Nigel Farage quit days after the Brexit referendum.
Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat said there was almost ‘unanimous support’ among the EU leaders for Britain to hold a second referendum.
But Mrs May once more ruled it out. ‘The people made their choice and it is our duty to deliver on the result,’ she said. ‘There’s a lot of hard work to be done but I believe there is the willingness to do a deal. If there is no agreement that is acceptable to the UK then we are preparing for a no deal.’
Mr Tusk said the next summit on October 18 would be Brexit’s ‘moment of truth’.