Brexit Diary: What does Donald Tusk mean by “realism”?

Today Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, came to London.

After the meeting, Tusk’s remarks were:

I feel cautiously optimistic about the constructive and more realistic tone of the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence and of our discussion today.

This shows that the philosophy of “having a cake and eating it” is finally coming to an end, or at least I hope so.

And that’s good news.

But of course no-one will ever tell me that Brexit is a good thing because, as I have always said, in fact Brexit is only about damage control, and I didn’t change my opinion.

As you know, we will discuss our future relations with the United Kingdom once there is so-called “sufficient progress”.

The two sides are working hard at it. But if you asked me and if today Member States asked me, I would say there is no “sufficient progress” yet. But we will work on it.

And this was his tweet:-

Today I’d say there is no “sufficient progress” yet. But cautiously optimistic about @Theresa_May constructive, more realistic #Brexit tone.

— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) September 26, 2017

The most significant thing, of course, is that the “sufficient progress” requirement has not been met.  This means the future relationship will not be discussed in the next (October) negotiation round at least.

But this is not the first time Tusk has talked about Brexit and realism.

This is from last September, in the months after the referendum vote:

We need optimistic scenario for EU27 future. But it requires realistic diagnosis of causes of Brexit & its consequences for Europe

— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) September 15, 2016

More importantly, this is from when Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech expressly affirmed that the UK would be leaving the Single Market and Customs Union:

Sad process, surrealistic times but at least more realistic announcement on #Brexit. EU27 united and ready to negotiate after Art. 50.

— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) January 17, 2017

So the UK was becoming more “realistic” in January, and again is becoming more “realistic” now.

Over time, the speech of Tusk last October becomes more significant.  I have referred to it in my FT piece today (on transition arrangements).  It is worth (re-)reading regularly as Brexit continues.

In that speech, this passage in particular sticks in the mind as what Tusk means by “real” when he calls thing “realistic” (emphasis added):

The brutal truth is that Brexit will be a loss for all of us.

There will be no cakes on the table. For anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar.

If you ask me if there is any alternative to this bad scenario, I would like to tell you that yes, there is.

And I think it is useless to speculate about “soft Brexit” because of all the reasons I’ve mentioned.

These would be purely theoretical speculations.

In my opinion, the only real alternative to a “hard Brexit” is “no Brexit”.

Even if today hardly anyone believes in such a possibility.

We will conduct the negotiations in good faith, defend the interests of the EU 27, minimise the costs and seek the best possible deal for all.

But as I have said before, I am afraid that no such outcome exists that will benefit either side.

Of course it is and can only be for the UK to assess the outcome of the negotiations and determine if Brexit is really in their interest.

Paraphrasing Hannah Arendt’s words: “a full understanding of all the consequences of the political process is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history”. 

In other words, Tusk believes the UK becomes more “realistic” the closer it comes to accepting that the only “real” alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit.


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