Donald Tusk has made a thinly veiled call for the UK to stay in the EU, suggesting the prime minister’s historic loss in parliament left a deal looking “impossible”.
As the scale of the defeat was announced, the president of the European council called for Theresa May to urgently clarify her next move. Brussels had expected the prime minister to lose the vote on the deal she had agreed with the EU, but the size of the majority against – 230 votes – meant there was little hope of the agreement being salvaged.
Tusk tweeted: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?”
May was expected to return to Brussels within days of the vote to consult with Tusk and the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, but it is unclear now what those discussions would involve.
In a statement, Juncker echoed Tusk’s remarks by urging the British government to “clarify its intentions as soon as possible” while reminding the British parliament that “time is almost up”. The UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March.
Juncker, in a defence of Brussels’ role in the negotiations, said the EU and its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, had shown “creativity and flexibility throughout” and that, in recent days, it had “demonstrated goodwill again by offering additional clarifications and reassurances”.
“The risk of a disorderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom has increased with this evening’s vote,” Juncker said. “While we do not want this to happen, the European commission will continue its contingency work to help ensure the EU is fully prepared.”
A senior EU official said that when May did return to Brussels, Juncker would simply ask her: “What’s next?”
That call for clarity was matched by EU leaders, in their responses to the news from Westminster.
In France, the president, Emmanuel Macron said the UK now had three options: a no-deal, which would be “scary for everybody”; seek to get an improved deal from the EU – to which he said “maybe we’ll make improvements on one or two things but I don’t really think so”; and finally an extension in order to “take more time to renegotiate something”, an option that he said “creates a great deal of uncertainty and worries”.
Michael Roth, Germany’s EU affairs minister, tweeted in response to the vote: “Disaster. Too bad. But EU’s door remains open”.
The Spanish government said it regretted “the negative result” but still hoped the deal would win approval, adding that a no-deal exit would be “catastrophic” for the UK.
A statement from the office of the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, warned that a “disorderly Brexit is a bad outcome for everyone, not least in Northern Ireland”.
“It is not too late to avoid this outcome and we call on the UK to set out how it proposes to resolve this impasse as a matter of urgency,” he said.
Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said: “No-deal Brexit is a bad solution, both for the UK and the EU. Together with our partners in the EU we will respond to new British proposals.”
Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg’s prime minister, called for the British government to find “solutions not problems”. “Now we need a fast and clear plan on how to proceed,” he said.
From The Hague, the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said: “Despite this setback, it does not mean we are in a no-deal situation. The next step is up to the UK.”
Barnier was engaged in late night talks with MEPs after the vote, but sources said Brussels would wait until after the weekend, giving British MPs time to coalesce around a clear plan, before engaging in substantive talks.
He told reporters: “Now it’s time for the UK to tell us the next steps. On our side we will remain united and determined to reach an agreement.”
EU officials predicted the first step would be for MPs to tell May to request an extension of the two-year negotiating period, removing the cliff edge of 29 March and setting off a debate among the other 27 member states on the terms of a prolongation.
Brussels has repeatedly insisted it would not renegotiate the 585-page withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship. Last month the EU27 rejected a 2021 target for completing trade talks, a request May believed could break the parliamentary deadlock.
Juncker reiterated in his statement that the deal was “a fair compromise and the best possible deal”.
However, in a sign of growing anxiety at the prospect of the UK crashing out, earlier on Tuesday the head of the eurozone’s finance ministers, Mário Centeno, had said he believed the EU and Britain would talk further and adjust their positions to avoid a no-deal Brexit, as the latest data confirmed the 19-member bloc was moving towards a period of slower growth.
“We can adjust our trajectory,” Centeno said. “We can open all the dossiers … We need to take informed decisions with total calm and avoid a no-deal exit. Practically anything is better than a no-deal exit.”
Before the vote, Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, also hinted at the flexibility the EU would show in the final act of the Brexit talks.
“If it goes wrong tonight, there could be further talks,” he said, while adding that he could not foresee “fundamental” changes.
The European parliament’s Brexit coordinator said the British parliament had said “what it doesn’t want”, and asked MPs to tell the EU what it did want.