Brexit is a delusion of those “longing for the Empire”, outgoing European Council president Donald Tusk has said in a valedictory speech, warning that Britain will be a “second-rate player” on the global stage after its EU exit.
Mr Tusk is an outspoken critic of Brexit who once warned that Leave campaigners such as Boris Johnson merited “a special place in hell”. But his comments go further than before in expressing his conviction that Britain’s departure is a profound mistake.
“I have heard repeatedly from Brexiters that they wanted to leave the European Union to make the United Kingdom global again”, Mr Tusk said in remarks to students at the College of Europe on Wednesday. “The reality is exactly the opposite.”
Mr Tusk, who has chaired EU summits for the past five years, said leaders from across the globe, including from India, Canada and South Africa, had shared their conviction with him that Brexit would leave Britain “an outsider, a second-rate player, while the main battlefield will be occupied by China, the United States and the European Union”.
“‘Why are they doing this?’ — I was asked this regretful question everywhere I went,” he said, noting that he was free to speak frankly days before he leaves office.
“Today, it is simply too late to impeach Donald, at least the European one,” he said.
The former Polish prime minister is little short of a hate figure for some Brexiters, who accuse him of humiliating former British prime minister Theresa May.
Mr Tusk’s role included running EU summit meetings where leaders co-ordinated their position for Brexit negotiations, including putting pressure on Britain to prevent a hard Irish border and their rejection of plans put forward by Mrs May for post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Noting repeated delays to Britain’s departure date, Mr Tusk urged opponents of Brexit not to give up. Remain parties in Britain argue that the general election on December 12 is the last chance to stop the UK from leaving the EU.
“We are in extra time,” Mr Tusk said. “Perhaps it will even go to penalties.”
Many in Brussels expect his successor in the European Council hot seat, Charles Michel, to take a markedly different approach.
Mr Michel, Belgium’s former prime minister, has often vented his frustration at how Brexit has dominated EU leaders’ summits. He has emphasised Europe’s ambitions without the UK and shown little of Mr Tusk’s appetite for Britain to change its mind and return to the fold.
Meanwhile the UK has said it will not nominate a candidate for the next European Commission, maintaining that British law states a prime minister is not permitted to make international appointments during an election period.
Tim Barrow, the UK’s ambassador to the EU, informed Brussels in a letter on Wednesday that a candidate would not be put forward. EU officials and diplomats had been expecting the British move and say the 27 member states could possibly vote to form the new commission without the UK.
A UK government official said: “We have written to the EU to confirm that pre-election guidance states the UK should not normally make nominations for international appointments during this period.”
Mr Tusk in his speech also had words of warning for other EU heads, notably France’s Emmanuel Macron, who he described as “our hope for the future”.
He attacked the French president’s decision last month to block the opening of EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, saying it would undermine Mr Macron’s vision “of a truly sovereign Europe”.
“There will be no sovereign Europe without a stable Balkans integrated with the rest of the continent, and you don’t need to be a historian to understand this,” he said.
He also shared his misgivings about Mr Macron’s attempted rapprochement with Russia.
“President Macron says that he shares the same views on this subject as [Hungarian prime minister] Viktor Orban, and that he hopes that Mr Orban will help convince Poles to change their position on Russia,” Mr Tusk said. “Maybe, but not me, Emmanuel.”
In a speech littered with warnings of the threat posed by Moscow, Mr Tusk said that during his mandate he had to repeatedly remind leaders that “Russia is not our strategic partner but our strategic problem.”