Theresa May is facing renewed calls to abandon her Chequers blueprint for Brexit after European Council president Donald Tusk said the offer of a simple, Canada-style free trade deal remained open.
Following talks in Brussels with Irish premier Leo Varadkar, Tusk said the EU remained committed to securing a deal with the UK which maintained a relationship that was “as close and as special as possible”.
He said the EU’s proposal for an enhanced version of the free trade deal it negotiated with Canada – sometimes referred to as “Canada+++” – was still on the table.
His intervention comes after May told the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham that her Chequers plan was the only proposal which would avoid the imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Tory Brexiteers – who say Chequers would keep Britain too closely tied to the EU after it has left the bloc – warmly welcomed Mr Tusk’s comments saying they showed another deal was possible.
Tusk said: “Let me make this clear: the EU wants a relationship with the UK that is as close and special as possible.
“From the very beginning, the EU offer has been not just a Canada deal, but a Canada+++ deal.
“Much further-reaching on trade, on internal security and on foreign policy cooperation. This is a true measure of respect.
“And this offer remains in place. The EU is serious about getting the best possible deal. Even though we haven’t changed our minds that the consequences of Brexit will be negative, for both sides.”
Former Brexit secretary David Davis, who quit over Chequers, said: “This shows clearly that No 10’s claim that ‘there is no alternative to Chequers’ is just wrong.
“We could easily switch strategies to Canada+++ and deliver an outcome that is good for the UK, acceptable to Parliament, and negotiable with Brussels.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group, said it represented “a good solution for everyone”, while Sir Bernard Jenkin also welcomed Tusk’s offer, but said there must be a satisfactory solution to the Irish border issue.
“EU must concede that Irish border issue is resolvable via checks away from border, not via backstop which threatens to divide UK,” he wrote on Twitter.
WHAT IS THE CANADA-PLUS OPTION?
Canada agreed a free trade deal with the EU in 2016, after seven years of talks
It removes most trade tariffs on goods and allows Canadian firms ‘preferential access’ to EU markets without having to sign up to all EU regulations automatically
Some food products such as eggs and chicken are exempt and trade in services is only partially covered
Brexiteers want a ‘Canada-plus-plus-plus’ deal, with bits of similar EU trade agreements with South Korea, Japan and Switzerland part of the bespoke UK deal
A Canada-style deal would leave the UK free to strike its own trade deals with other countries, like the US, while handing back control of immigration.
It’s unclear how a Canada option could avoid new border checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland
May is adamant she will not accept the EU’s proposed “backstop” arrangement which would effectively see Northern Ireland remain in the customs union if there was no wider deal – requiring checks on goods going between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Tusk said the EU remained “united behind Ireland” and the need to “preserve the Northern Ireland peace process”.
“Despite the UK Government’s rejection of the original EU backstop proposal we will not give up seeking a workable solution that fully respects the Good Friday Agreement as well as the integrity of the single market and customs union,” he said.
In his news conference, Tusk also angrily denounced Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s “insulting” comparison in his conference speech of the EU to the Soviet Union.
“The Soviet Union was about prisons and gulags, borders and walls, violence against citizens and neighbours,” he said.
“The European Union is about freedom and human rights, prosperity and peace, life without fear, it is about democracy and pluralism – a continent without internal borders and walls.
“As the President of the European Council and someone who spent half his life in the Soviet bloc, I know what I am talking about.”