EU still open to Britain changing mind on Brexit

European Council President Donald Tusk speaking during a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Jan 16.
European Council President Donald Tusk speaking during a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Jan 16.PHOTO: AFP

STRASBOURG, FRANCE (AFP, REUTERS) - European Union leaders love-bombed Britain on Tuesday (jan 16), holding the door open for it to change its mind about ending its four-decade membership of the bloc next year.

The comments by EU President Donald Tusk, European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and others weighed into a debate in Britain about holding a second Brexit referendum.

Leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage surprisingly pushed the issue back onto the agenda last week when he said he was increasingly open to the idea of a new vote.

Tusk told the European Parliament that “if the UK government sticks to its decision to leave, Brexit will become a reality with all its negative consequences in March next year, unless there is a change of heart among our British friends.”

“We on the continent haven’t had a change of heart. Our hearts are still open to you,” the European Council chief said in a speech about last month’s EU summit.

Constitutional lawyers are divided on whether Britain can withdraw its two-year notice to quit but the exchanges underline a view in Brussels that an EU political consensus could be found to avert Brexit – even if most are now resigned to Britain leaving and believe the Union will weather the disruption.

‘Door remains open’

The former Polish premier was indeed not alone on Tuesday, with Juncker calling on the British government to listen to Tusk about the possibility of reversing its decision.

“Tusk said our door still remains open and I hope that will be heard clearly in London,” Juncker told MEPs.

Juncker’s deputy Frans Timmermans gave similar encouragement, telling parliament: “If at some point the United Kingdom has second thoughts, or would take another decision, obviously the European Union would leave the door open.”

New Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz joined the chorus later, saying in Vienna that he was “happy that this offer has been made. But the decision goes back to the British people.”

Britain voted for Brexit by 52 per cent to 48 per cent in a referendum in June 2016, stunning the world and deeply worrying the EU as it confronted a series of other crises.

Former UKIP leader Farage said a second referendum would silence those in Britain who do not want to leave the bloc, but his words were quickly seized upon by pro-EU politicians who hoped the “Remain” side would win this time.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has said holding a second referendum would be “betraying the British people.

Her spokesman, when asked about Tusk's latest comments, said UK will be leaving the EU.

Richard Tice of the Leave Means Leave campaign issued a statement saying Tusk and Juncker should accept that Britons would not reverse their vote – “despite their best efforts”.

European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt took a swipe at Farage on Tuesday, saying he had been “disorientated” by his meeting with EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier earlier this week.

“I don’t know what he (Barnier) put in the coffee or tea of Nigel Farage because he comes out of this meeting and he backs a second referendum,” the former Belgian premier said.

‘Hardest work ahead’

Tusk meanwhile called for the remaining 27 EU states to stay unified in the ongoing negotiations with Britain on its departure while urging London to say what it wanted in terms of post- Brexit ties.

“The hardest work is still ahead of us and time is limited,” he said, amid reports that member states are increasingly divided on how tough to be on Britain.

“What we need today is more clarity on the UK’s vision. Once we have that, the leaders will meet and decide on the way that we see the future relationship with the UK as a third country,” Tusk said.

Britain and the EU reached a deal in principle on separation issues in December, and are due to start talks next month on a short transition period after Britain’s departure in March 2019.

Talks on future relations – including the all-important issue of a possible trade deal, and how closely Britain will stay allied to the EU’s single market and customs union – are not due to start until April.

Barnier has called for an outline agreement by October so that it can be approved by the British and European Parliaments in time for Brexit day.

The Brexit issue also loomed over French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Calais on Tuesday (Jan 16) ahead of talks with May later this week at which he will seek to pressure Britain to help more in dealing with migrants trying to cross the channel.