LONDON — After being confronted, even mocked a bit, at a meeting of European leaders in Austria this week, Prime Minister Theresa May told her country on Friday “we are at an impasse” in negotiations over Britain’s departure from the continental union.
May has struggled to put forward a complex compromise that can win signatures in Europe and be accepted by rebellious hard-liners in her own government ahead of the March 29 Brexit deadline.
In a curt address from 10 Downing Street, carried live on Friday, May said Europe was asking for more concessions than she could grant.
“No one wants a good deal more than me,” she said. “But the E.U. should be clear: I will not overturn the result of the referendum. Nor will I break up my country.”
May conceded the two sides remain far apart — and threatened that Britain could leave the union without a deal, a scenario that many British businesses consider a doomsday option.
In Salzburg, May was told quite plainly by her counterparts that her proposals on Brexit “will not work.” French President Emmanuel Macron went further and called Brexit campaigners liars for telling voters that leaving the European Union would be both easy and profitable.
May was allowed to make her case to the 27 other European leaders in a Wednesday dinner speech — but was then excluded from their talks on Brexit the next morning.
While still at the meeting, in a gesture that many Brits saw as insulting, European Union Council President Donald Tusk posted a photo on Instagram of himself offering May a pastry — with the caption: “A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries.”
The joke being that Britain’s strategy for leaving the European Union’s single market has been unrealistic. As the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson put it: “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.”
Tusk was also tsk-tsking May for trying to “cherry pick” a trade deal with Europe — wanting to maintain a common “rule book” for the frictionless trade of goods, for example, while going its own way on services.
May was clearly miffed at her treatment.
“Throughout this process, I have treated the E.U. with nothing but respect. The U.K. expects the same,” she said.
May also complained that the Europeans were being obstinate.
“At this late stage in the negotiations, it is not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals without a detailed explanation and counter proposals,” she said.
In the past, European negotiators have said it is Britain that is being unrealistic and not paying attention. In Britain, the political class is obsessed with Brexit. In Europe, leaders have moved on.
British opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called May’s Brexit strategy “a disaster” and said “the political games from both the E.U. and our government need to end because no deal is not an option.”
Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, called May’s remarks “dreadful.”
“The E.U. view was bluntly expressed yesterday but not new — she just hasn’t been listening,” Sturgeon said, adding that May’s proposals were a “dead duck” and that the British prime minister shouldn’t be blaming the European Union for the impasse.
Tusk responded to May’s remarks by stating that “the U.K. stance presented just before and during the Salzburg meeting was surprisingly tough and in fact uncompromising.” He added that the 27 remaining members of the European Union were unified and that May’s proposals on economic cooperation and the Irish border “need to be reworked and further negotiated.”