Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has urged EU leaders to “step back from the abyss” of a no-deal Brexit and engage with Theresa May’s Chequers plan.
Following the angry clashes at the Salzburg summit, Mr Hunt said it was “counterproductive” to “insult” Britain’s referendum vote and to say the only way the UK could legally leave was by “breaking up your country”.
“What we need to be doing in a situation like this is bringing people together,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“This is a time for people in the EU to step back from the abyss, to sit down and to talk to us about how we can make these sensible, concrete proposals actually work.”
After EU leaders meeting in Austria on Thursday warned a key element of the Chequers plan would not work, Mr Hunt called them to engage with Britain in a “spirit of politeness and decency” to find an agreed solution.
However, he did not rule out the prospect that the Government could now seek a simple, Canada-style free trade agreement – favoured by many Tory MPs – rather than continuing with the more ambitious Chequers proposals.
“I am not dismissing anything,” he said, adding however that a Canada-style agreement would not address the issue of the Irish border.
Mr Hunt made clear the Government’s anger at the way Mrs May had been treated in Salzburg, with European Council President Donald Tusk posting a mocking tweet with a picture of him offering Mrs May a cake with the caption “Sorry, no cherries” – a reference to EU accusations of British “cherry picking” – while French President Emmanuel Macron called Brexit campaigners “liars”.
He underlined the Prime Minister’s warning in a televised address on Friday that she was ready to walk away from the negotiations rather than accept a “bad deal”.
“What Theresa May is saying is ‘Don’t mistake British politeness for weakness. If you put us in a difficult corner we will stand our ground. That is the kind of country we are,’” Mr Hunt said.
“Insulting her on social media, getting to these stand-offs where you are calling people liars and so on is not the way we are going to get a solution to this difficult situation.
“If we are going to work seriously towards a solution then we need to avoid revving up the situation, making it worse by appealing to audiences on social media.”
In particular Mr Hunt made clear Britain could not accept the EU’s “backstop” plan for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic to avoid the return of a hard border in the event that there was no agreement on new customs arrangements.
He said the proposal, which would effectively see Northern Ireland remain in the single market requiring customs checks on goods moving to and from the British mainland, would effectively mean the break-up of the UK.
While a no-deal break would lead to “disruption” on both sides of the Channel – with an estimated 1 million jobs lost across the EU – Mr Hunt said he was confident Britain would flourish whatever the outcome of the negotiations.
“It would be bumpy, it would be difficult, but we would find a way to survive and prosper as a country. We have had far bigger challenges in our history but it is not our desired outcome,” he said.
In her televised address, Mrs May demanded EU leaders show the same “respect” that she had always shown to them and warned them not to make demands they knew Britain could not accept.
In a statement on Friday, Mr Tusk denied claims that the EU leaders in Salzburg had dismissed her Chequers plan out of hand, saying that the British side had known for “many weeks” about the EU concerns.
While he suggested that the leaders had been taken aback by her “surprisingly tough and in fact uncompromising” stance at the meeting, he said he believed a deal was still possible.
“While understanding the logic of the negotiations, I remain convinced that a compromise, good for all, is still possible. I say these words as a close friend of the UK and a true admirer of PM May,” he said.