British Prime Minister Theresa May faced headlines Friday detailing her “humiliation” at an EU summit in Salzburg, where she was given just weeks to strike a Brexit deal acceptable to the bloc and hardliners at home.
May returned to Britain under renewed pressure after European Union leaders rejected her proposal for future economic ties, even as she pledged to offer new proposals on the thorny question of the Irish border.
They also put on ice a special summit suggested for mid-November to seal a deal, saying it would only happen if there was real progress at the next EU gathering in October.
The embattled British leader gave a defiant press conference before leaving Austria, insisting her plan for a UK-EU free trade area just for goods was “the only proposal on the table”.
Cabinet colleagues reiterated her message on Friday.
“She is sticking up for Britain, sticking up for what will work for our country,” Housing Secretary James Brokenshire told BBC radio.
“These are tough negotiations, that is what this is all about. I think we will still get a deal… not withstanding the situation we’ve seen yesterday.”
– ‘Euro mobsters’ –
But British newspapers made grim reading for the prime minister, with the word “humiliation” splashed across several front pages.
Eurosceptic publications accused European leaders of mafia-style behaviour.
Popular tabloid The Sun even mocked up pictures of EU Council President Donald Tusk and French President Emmanuel Macron as “Euro mobsters” under the headline “EU Dirty Rats”.
Tusk and Macron had torn into May’s so-called Chequers plan, which they believe will fragment the bloc’s prized single market and “not work”.
EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker conceded Friday that the Brexit negotiations were prickly — likening them to the courtship of two hedgehogs — but insisted the two sides were “moving closer”.
– ‘Bad tempers’ –
The tone of the summit surprised many commentators, however, after briefings on both sides of the Channel beforehand that they would avoid any surprises.
Later this month, May faces the annual conference of her Conservative party, which includes a eurosceptic faction that is strongly against her plan, with some lawmakers angling for a new leader.
Simon Usherwood, politics professor at the University of Surrey, told AFP the EU’s “desire to help Theresa May have a bit more space back home collapsed” in Austria.
He said May had irked EU leaders with an uncompromising article Wednesday for German newspaper Die Welt, followed up by a similar summit dinner speech and an unproductive sideline meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
“Yesterday was really about irritation and bad tempers that the UK really hasn’t got the measure of this properly,” Usherwood added.
But he added: “Domestically she’s super-constrained by the party.
“She can’t really be seen to be making concessions… particularly when you’re about to have the entire party get together and be in a position to launch plots and intrigue.”
He said May will likely seek to offer up some concessions once the potentially perilous Tory gathering ends on October 3.
“But that leaves really no time to get real progress in place for the October European Council,” in Brussels on the 18 and 19.
May said Thursday she would bring forward new ideas on how keep the Northern Irish border open after Brexit, which along with the future economic relationship has proved the key sticking point in negotiations.
The EU has proposed that Northern Ireland, a British province, continue to follow many EU trade rules and regulations to maintain the status quo with Ireland, a remaining bloc member.
But London has strongly rejected treating any one province in Britain differently and ruled out having any internal customs checks.