By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - British leaders who sold Brexit with no plan for how to deliver it deserve a "special place in hell", the EU's Donald Tusk said, revealing frustration in Brussels and sparking fury among anti-EU campaigners.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, the Polish European Council president said: "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."
Tusk, who hosts British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday, was speaking after talks with Ireland's prime minister on how to salvage a Brexit deal before Britain drops out of the bloc in just 50 days, risking the peace in Northern Ireland.
Saying Britain would leave as a "trusted friend" if it drops objections to giving Ireland a "backstop" guarantee on the border, Tusk's blunt language revealed the hostility London may face if fails to find a compromise with European neighbours whom it will be counting on to maintain good relations in the future.
May's spokesman suggested he had not been "helpful". Some of her allies were franker, calling Tusk a "bully" and a "devilish euro maniac", disrespectful of those who voted for Brexit.
Seen as a plain-speaking centrist with a big-picture view of Europe forged as an anti-communist activist in Cold War Gdansk, Tusk, a historian by training, had held out hope of stopping what he calls a "tragedy" for both sides. But, he said, May's "pro-Brexit stance" now made British departure inevitable -- the only issue being trying to avoid it being a chaotic "fiasco".
He has niggled May before; an online gag of him offering the diabetic premier a cake with no metaphorical Brexit cherries on top went down badly. His latest scripted comment, EU officials said, exposed frustration among the national leaders he speaks for at rejection of a done deal and anger at how London seems ready to risk jobs and peace while blaming EU "intransigence".
Irish premier Leo Varadkar was picked up by microphones laughingly telling Tusk "I know you're right" but he would get "terrible trouble in the British press" for his jibe at Brexit.
Nigel Farage, who long campaigned to leave the European Union, hit back within minutes on Twitter: "After Brexit we will be free of unelected, arrogant bullies like you and run our own country," he said. "Sounds more like heaven to me."
The EU rejects complaints that leaders like Tusk are unelected. He was prime minister of Poland when he was chosen in 2014 by fellow elected leaders of EU member states, including Britain, to chair and seek consensus at their summits.
As May struggles to find any consensus solution in London, her spokesman said: "It's a question for Donald Tusk as to whether he considers the use of that kind of language helpful."
Brexit campaigner Peter Bone from May's Conservative party called it an "outrageous insult". Arlene Foster, her Northern Irish ally, said Tusk was being "deliberately provocative" and "disrespectful" to voters -- though Tusk's target has always been political leaders who promised an easy, profitable exit.
Brexit opponents in Britain rallied behind him. The Europe spokesman for Scotland's ruling nationalists said he "hit the nail on the head" in deriding "charlatans and chancers".
Tusk echoed widely held sentiments across Europe.
"There is growing frustration among our leaders, who cannot understand why she still has not been able to do what they do every day – talk to the opposition, build coalitions," said one senior EU diplomat. "The EU is not to blame.
"Those at fault are those in the UK who completely forgot about Northern Ireland. They haven't thought it through at all."
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper in London and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Editing by Peter Graff, William Maclean)