Donald Tusk raises prospect of ‘no-deal’ Brexit scenario

European council chief says possibility of failing to reach a deal must be considered if ‘sufficient progress’ not made by December.

The EU and the UK may need to start planning for a “no deal” scenario if the pace of the Brexit negotiations does not speed up, the president of the European council has said.

In a direct response to Theresa May’s statement in the House of Commons on Monday, in which she said the British government was preparing for talks to fail, Donald Tusk admitted the negotiations were floundering.

He ruled out any chance of “sufficient progress” on the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the Irish border being made by a European council summit on 19 October, which would have allowed wider trade talks to begin, as originally planned.

But in a significant shift in tone, Tusk also appeared to suggest that, should the impasse continue past Christmas, both sides might need to move into an emergency footing to address the consequences of failing to reach a deal.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has previously warned that a no-deal scenario would lead to extreme uncertainty for 4 million citizens, supply problems in the UK, and the reintroduction of burdensome customs checks which would slow down trade and lengthen lorry queues in Dover. He has also spoken of disruption in air traffic to and from the UK and the suspension of the distribution of nuclear material to Britain.

Addressing regional leaders in Brussels on Tuesday, Tusk said: “I would like to refer to Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent words. We hear from London that the UK government is preparing for a ‘no deal’ scenario. I would like to say very clearly that the EU is not working on such a scenario. We are negotiating in good faith, and we still hope that the so-called ‘sufficient progress’ will be possible by December.

“However, if it turns out that the talks continue at a slow pace, and that ‘sufficient progress’ hasn’t been reached, then – together with our UK friends – we will have to think about where we are heading.”

Earlier in the day, Barnier responded to May’s suggestion in the Commons that the “ball was in the EU’s court”, following a series of concessions offered in the prime minister’s Florence speech.

“Brexit is not a game,” Barnier said, as he emerged from a lunch with the UK’s Brexit secretary, David Davis, in Brussels on the second day of the fifth round of negotiations.

“Lunch was good and we had constructive talks, not the first time or the last time,” Barnier told reporters outside the residence of the UK’s permanent representative in Brussels.

When asked whether progress was being made on the opening withdrawal issues, and if “the ball [is] in your court”, Barnier responded: “We are working. Brexit is not a game. Don’t forget it.”

On the most troublesome issue of the financial settlement, the UK has said it is not willing to extend its offer beyond €20bn to ensure no member state loses out in the two years after the UK leaves. The EU has said this position is insufficient to give it confidence to move on to trade talks.

Ian Murray MP, a leading supporter of Open Britain, which is campaigning to stop a hard Brexit, said: “While the cabinet play out their divisions in the press, the real negotiations, upon which millions of people’s futures depend, are running into the sand.

“It’s not long ago we were being told by ministers that the deal with the EU would be done within two years, and that it would be the easiest in human history. But with every round of fruitless talks a hard, destructive Brexit with no deal at all is becoming increasingly likely.

“It is clear that there simply will not be time to negotiate the special, bespoke trade partnership that ministers seek. The best option for jobs and our economy is to stay in the single market and the customs union in the long term.”

The two sides are not due to sit down to negotiate on Wednesday, although both sides insisted they would do so if the other party was available.

Asked why the day had been left blank, the European commission’s spokesman said the timetable was drawn up according to the availability of the British negotiating team.

In response, a spokesperson for the Department for Exiting the EU said: “The talks this week were a mutually agreed programme designed to give both sides the best chance to make progress. We have always been clear that we are ready to negotiate at any time.”

The European parliament’s Brexit coordinator briefed MEPs on the chamber’s budget committee earlier in the day, and warned of his particular concern about the lack of progress on the issue of the Irish border.