Analysis & Comment

Kevin Doyle: 'Tusk's outburst served no purpose – but it's clear EU still has our back'

The idea of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage making their way to hell in a Brexit handcart is not the image anybody expected to emerge from the Taoiseach’s latest tour of Brussels.

Leo Varadkar didn’t need any spin unit to tell him the reaction a top EU figure could expect for pondering such a scene out loud.

He quickly, but not quietly enough to be missed by the microphones, warned Donald Tusk that he would get “terrible trouble” from the British press, which has so proudly been cheerleading for Brexit.

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But Mr Tusk had already seen the stunned faces on the journalists sitting in front of him. He was well aware of the weight his words would carry.

And the European Council president was barely off the stage when his Twitter account reiterated: “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.”

The question is, why? It is understandable that the top brass in Brussels are beyond frustrated with the carry-on of the UK government – but Mr Tusk’s words serve little purpose.

Part of Europe’s great strength during the Brexit process has been an ability to act professionally. Perhaps Mr Tusk started to feel a bit dizzy on the moral high ground.

The outburst should make for a very interesting meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May today.

His comments weren’t aimed at the prime minister, who did her best to be absent during the referendum campaign in 2016, but they did cut deeply for many within her divided Conservative Party.

As the House of Commons went into uproar, Mr Varadkar made his way to the European Commission, where Jean-Claude Juncker showed him a massive ‘Thank You’ card he received from a Dublin family.

The Commission president is a favoured villain in the UK media, but on this occasion was, in his own words, “sticking to the line”.

Asked by the Irish Independent if he agreed with Mr Tusk, he replied: “I’m less Catholic than my good friend Donald. He strongly believes in heaven and by opposite in hell. I believe in heaven and not in hell, apart from what I’m doing now, which is hell.”

Mr Varadkar dodged the same question.

But hidden in all the controversy over Mr Tusk’s remarks were some very salient points that should form the basis for Mrs May’s meetings in Brussels.

Both EU leaders made it clear that the backstop is a done deal. “We will not gamble with peace, or put a sell-by date on reconciliation. And this is why we insist on the backstop,” said Mr Tusk.

Mr Juncker said: “So-called ‘alternative arrangements’ can never replace the backstop.”

It was those sort of soothing statements Mr Varadkar was looking for – and the knowledge that Mrs May cannot claim to be “ambushed” today.

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