Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, arrives at a European Union (EU) leaders summit at the Europa Building in Brussels, Belgium (Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)  

As May Beats a Path to Brexit, EU Opens Door for U.K. Return

(Bloomberg) -- European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker 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 executive arm said the U.K. can always re-apply for membership after departing. Juncker cited the EU treaty’s Article 49, which invites any European state that respects the bloc’s values to apply for accession and precedes Article 50 governing the process for leaving.

The U.K. government was quick to respond. May’s spokesman James Slack told reporters “we have been absolutely clear on a number of occasions -- most recently yesterday -- that we are leaving the European Union.” As for the second referendum, “I’m not sure how much clearer we can be.”

May has repeatedly said it’s not on the cards though it’s become a topic of political debate in the past five days, since Nigel Farage signaled openness to a second Brexit ballot. Farage, one of the protagonists of the campaign that helped persuade 52 percent of U.K. voters in 2016 to opt for leaving the EU, changed tack on Wednesday by throwing out the possibility that he might support another plebiscite on the issue.

“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 the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday. “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.”

His comments echoed 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 U.K., 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” and a “catastrophe that we all have to live with the consequences of,” Juncker said. If the British government wants to chart another course, “we are very much willing to deal with them,” he said.

Farage’s comments last week on a possible second referendum pushed what until now had been only a hypothetical question into something politicians in London and EU capitals are getting asked about. Saying he wanted to settle the question for a generation and silence the growing voices calling for Brexit to be abandoned, Farage tweeted on Jan. 11 to his 1.1 million followers: “Maybe, just maybe, we should have a second referendum.”

On Wednesday in Strasbourg, Farage was firmer. He said “I don’t want a second referendum on Brexit, absolutely not” while predicting that any such British ballot would uphold the result of the first.

On Tuesday, May insisted she wouldn’t 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.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.