LONDON • British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt yesterday accused EU Council president Donald Tusk of "insulting the British people" by needling Prime Minister Theresa May in a social media post.
Mr Tusk created a mini-sensation during a difficult EU summit on Brexit in Salzburg by posting a photo on Instagram of himself offering Mrs May a tray of cakes.
"A piece of cake, perhaps?" Mr Tusk wrote alongside the picture. "Sorry, no cherries." The comment was a biting reference to claims by Brussels that Mrs May was "cherry-picking" the best parts of EU membership while leaving the bloc.
Her plan envisions a UK-EU free trade area for goods through a common rule book. But it would abandon the bloc's right to the free movement of people and see Britain adopt its own migration policy.
The European Union wants to make sure the remaining 27 members do not follow Britain's example by trying to leave while preserving the benefits of free trade.
Mrs May's plan was rebuffed in the Austrian city last Thursday, and Mr Tusk's post only added to what several British newspapers called her "humiliation".
1 When is the Brexit deadline?
Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on Friday, March 29 next year.
Thus, British Prime Minister Theresa May has just about six months to negotiate a divorce agreement with the European Union, sell it to her divided Conservative Party and win parliamentary approval.
Last week's EU summit in Salzburg was intended as a staging post in the negotiations, but with the two sides now at an impasse, there is even more pressure on Mrs May. Both parties must resolve the issues that are holding up progress by the October EU Council summit - the deadline to reach an agreement to allow time for the deal to be ratified by the British and European Parliaments.
2 What is the transition period?
It is a grace period after March 29 next year, up to Dec 31, 2020, designed to give businesses and people time to prepare for the start of the new post-Brexit rules agreed by Britain and the EU. If there is no divorce agreement, there will be no transition.
3 What are the stumbling blocks?
The two thorniest issues in the talks are the post-Brexit trade ties and the Irish border.
Mrs May's proposal to follow EU rules on trade in goods under her so-called Chequers plan for the post-Brexit trading relationship has provoked a fierce backlash among euro sceptics in her party.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has also been deeply critical of the plan, which Mrs May hopes could form the basis of a political agreement on trade to be included in the divorce deal.
A key sticking point is how to avoid a "hard border" between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic when London leaves the EU single market and Customs union.
There are fears that frontier checks would disrupt trade.
Europe is insisting on a fall-back plan, a "backstop", that would keep Northern Ireland in the Customs union under EU rules while a future trade relationship is negotiated.
Mrs May has accepted the need for a backstop but says the EU's version of the proposal would create a border in the Irish Sea that threatens its territorial integrity.
Although Mrs May has said she would be willing to make a compromise on the Irish border, there are doubts it will go far enough to win support from the bloc.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG
The British Prime Minister tried to regain her footing by delivering a tough television address last Friday demanding that Britain be treated with respect.
The pound fell by as much as 1.6 per cent against the US dollar last Friday after Mrs May's defiant comments.
That message was picked up yesterday and taken a step further by Mr Hunt in an appearance on the BBC's Today radio programme.
"Don't mistake British politeness for weakness," Mr Hunt said.
"We need to get the tone right, and insulting her, insulting the British people on social media, getting into these stand-offs where you're calling people liars and so on is not the way we are going to find a solution to this difficult situation."
Mr Tusk issued a statement last Friday evening calling himself "a close friend of the UK and a true admirer of PM May".
In Paris, Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau said that while France believed a good Brexit deal was possible, it must also prepare for a "no deal" outcome. Britain's vote to leave "cannot lead to the EU going bust", she said.
In Berlin, German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth said the other 27 EU states were striving to achieve reasonable solutions. "The blame game against the EU is therefore more than unfair. We can't solve the problems that are arising on the island (Britain) due to Brexit," he said on Twitter.
How the two sides intend to move forward with the clock ticking down to the March 29 Brexit deadline remains unclear.
Pressure is mounting on Mrs May from euro sceptics in her Conservative Party to abandon the so-called "Chequers" proposal for a less ambitious one that would not maintain such close EU-UK ties.
The Daily Telegraph reported that ministers intended to use a Cabinet meeting tomorrow to call on Mrs May to develop a "Plan B" alternative to Chequers.
Mrs May continued to insist last Friday that there were only two options on the table: Trying to find a compromise on her proposal or no deal at all. She added that it was now the EU's turn to make a counter-proposal.
"We now need to hear from the EU what the real issues are and what their alternative is so that we can discuss them. Until we do, we cannot make progress," she said.
But Mr Hunt refused to rule out looking into an alternative to Chequers such as the deal Canada signed with the EU in 2016.
"I'm not dismissive of anything," he said. "We have been clear that we are prepared to negotiate on the Chequers proposal, but we can't talk to a void."
Canada has a much looser free trade deal with the EU that does not remove non-tariff barriers.
REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE