Don't dream it's over: EU's Brexit message to Britain

2018-01-19 13:19
EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. (Frederick Florin, AFP File)

EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. (Frederick Florin, AFP File)

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Brussels - A sudden flurry of suggestions by the EU that Brexit could be reversed has sparked questions about the bloc's motives and even accusations of a secret plot to keep Britain in the European Union.

But officials and analysts say European leaders are merely keeping the "dream" alive, after calls for a second referendum mounted in Britain, and that they hold no realistic hope of reversing its scheduled departure in 2019.

"I think it's more in hope than any kind of expectation. It isn't an attempt to force the issue," said Simon Usherwood, deputy director of the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank.

READ From referendum to Brexit deal: Key dates

The apparent rush by European officials to hold open the door came after Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage last week floated the idea of a new vote on EU membership.

EU President Donald Tusk began the charm offensive, saying that the bloc's "hearts are open" to Britain changing its mind. European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker followed up by offering to back any British attempt to rejoin, even after it leaves.

Rush of affection

Irish premier Leo Varadkar, whose country is directly affected by the Brexit decision due to its land border with Britain, insists there is no "plot" but said it would not be undemocratic to hold a new vote.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said he was "happy" the offer of EU membership remains open to Britain.

Farage however smells a conspiracy - "a bigger attempt to frustrate and overturn Brexit" - and has accused the EU of working with pro-European former British prime minister Tony Blair.

The British government insists it will honour the June 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU.

The sudden rush of affection comes despite months of bad-tempered Brexit divorce negotiations between London and an EU which insists it is keen to move on.

And it raises the question of why Europe is being so welcoming now after four decades of membership during which Britain never really found its place in Europe - something Juncker this week admitted both sides were to blame for.

But officials insist there is no co-ordinated effort by the EU to turn back the clock.

Most of the European reaction can be put down to the fact that, 18 months after the Brexit referendum, the EU is still disappointed by the departure of a member state for the first time in its history, said analyst Pieter Cleppe.

"I don't think it's a plot. I don't think there is a cunning grand plan behind it all," said Cleppe, head of the Brussels office for the think-tank Open Europe.

"Nobody likes Brexit in the club of EU leaders."

Despite urging Britain to come up with ideas for a future EU-UK relationship, the bloc's leaders may themselves be stalling as they have a "hard time believing" that Brexit can work, said Cleppe.

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