EU’s Juncker opens door for UK’s return

Juncker cites the EU’s treaty Article 49, which invites any European state that respects EU values to apply for membership


STRASBOURG • European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (picture) offered a new twist in his campaign to keep Britain part of the EU.

A day after urging British Prime Minister Theresa May to reverse Brexit before it happens in March 2019, the head of the European Union’s (EU) executive arm said the UK can always re-apply for membership after departing. Juncker cited the EU’s treaty Article 49, which invites any European state that respects EU values to apply for membership.

“We are not throwing the British out, we would like the British to stay, and if they so wish, they should be allowed to do so,” Juncker told lawmakers in Strasbourg, France, yesterday. “Even if the British leave under Article 50, then Article 49 would allow them to accede again, and I would be happy to facilitate that.”

Juncker’s comments echoed repeated calls by European Council president Donald Tusk for the British to reconsider their decision. They reveal a consensus across the EU that Brexit is a colossal mistake for the UK, a major headache for the continent and a choice that Britons could reverse if only they can muster the political courage.

Brexit is “lose-lose situation”, a “catastrophe that we all have to live with the consequences of”, Juncker said. If the British government wants to find a different way out of the Brexit situation, “we are very much willing to deal with them”.

EU officials at the European Parliament plenary which convenes in Strasbourg this week, have been emboldened by the comments of Nigel Farage, one of the protagonists of the Brexit campaign, who said that a second referendum could be on the cards. While acknowledging that a reversal of the course to leave the bloc isn’t the baseline assumption of the EU, one official wondered what will happen if the UK Parliament rejects the withdrawal agreement, with just months or days to go before the exit date of March 29, 2019.

The European Parliament also published a legal study last week concluding that the revocation of the UK’s notification of the intention to leave the bloc isn’t forbidden by the Treaty on the EU.

While EU judges would have to be consulted, according to the study, Juncker said yesterday that Britons should be allowed to stay, while Tusk said on Tuesday that EU’s hearts are “still open”.

On Tuesday, May was again forced to insist that she will not be reversing Brexit. In a call with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, May “confirmed that the government will respect the decision taken by the British public to leave the EU”, a statement from her office said.

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is demanding that May promises to spend more on state-funded healthcare — or risk losing the next election, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Johnson campaigned during the 2016 Brexit referendum to leave the EU, telling voters the UK could afford to allocate an extra £350 million (RM1.91 billion) a week to the National Health Service if it no longer had to make payments to the EU. He wasn’t a minister in the government at the time, and May’s administration has yet to honour John son’s referendum promise.

The claim was widely criticised, with the UK Statistics Authority saying it was potentially misleading and official data showing the amount the UK sends the EU per week is about £180 million.

But Johnson doubled down on the promise earlier this week, saying he “grossly underestimated” the amount of cash that would become available. The statistics authority has been asked to audit the latest claim too.

Now a senior Cabinet minister, he’s demanding that May pledge more funding — an extra £5.2 billion a year — on free public medical care after Brexit or open the door to the socialist leader of the main Opposition Labour party Jeremy Corbyn. The initial pledge of £350 million would add up to about £18 billion a year.

Johnson, a potential rival to May for the party leadership, favours a clean break that would allow the UK to make trade deals across the globe, and break free from EU regulation and court rulings.

Others in Cabinet favour tighter ties, even if that would mean being bound to rules made in Brussels. — Bloomberg