European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said on Wednesday he would welcome any British attempt to re-join the EU after Brexit, as Brussels jumped on speculation about a second referendum.
Juncker’s comment about possible re-accession comes a day after European Council President Donald Tusk said that the bloc’s “hearts were still open” if Britain decided to change its mind about leaving the EU.
Top EU officials have made a series of remarks about Britain reversing its decision since leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage floated the idea of a new vote following the June 2016 Brexit referendum.
Juncker, who heads the EU’s powerful executive arm, said Brexit was a “catastrophe” and a “lose-lose situation both for the British and members of the European Union.”
“Mr Tusk says our hands remain outstretched. If the British wish to find another way than Brexit, we are then ready to talk about it,” Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
“I did note that in London there was a rather irritated response to this proposal, but even if the British leave according to article 50 (of the EU’s treaties), there is as well an article 49, which allows rejoining. I would like that,” he added.
“And I would like that we treat each other now in a reasonable way and do not try to outmanoeuvre each other.”
Responding to criticisms that the EU still does not understand the euro-sceptic sentiments that led to Brexit, Juncker admitted that “the guilt lies on many” for the fact that Britain “never felt entirely comfortable” in the bloc.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesperson on Tuesday ruled out a second vote.
Britain voted for Brexit by 52 % to 48 % in a referendum in June 2016, stunning the world and deeply worrying the EU as it confronted a series of other crises.
Farage on Wednesday backtracked on his earlier referendum comments, in a debate with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in the European parliament.
“I would just say this to you: I don’t want a second referendum on Brexit, absolutely not,” the former UK Independence Party leader said.
“But I fear that you are all working together with Tony Blair and Nick Clegg (former British prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively) to make sure we get the worst possible deal,” Farage added.
On Thursday, Farage told British TV that “my mind is actually changing on this” and that “maybe, maybe I am reaching the point of thinking we should have a second referendum” because it would “kill off the issue for a generation”.
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.