The president of the European parliament has said Britain would be welcomed back with open arms if voters change their minds about Brexit on 8 June, challenging Theresa May’s claim that “there is no turning back” after article 50.
Speaking after a meeting with the prime minister in Downing Street, Antonio Tajani insisted that her triggering of the departure process last month could be reversed easily by the remaining EU members if there was a change of UK government after the general election and would not even require a court case.
“If the UK, after the election, wants to withdraw [Article 50], then the procedure is very clear,” he said in an interview. “If the UK wanted to stay, everybody would be in favour. I would be very happy.”
He also threatened to veto any Brexit deal if it does not guarantee in full the existing rights of EU citizens in Britain and said this protection would forever be subject to the jurisdiction of the European court of justice (ECJ).
Both are potential sticking points for May, who has promised to end free movement of EU citizens and rid Britain forever of interference by the ECJ, but the European parliament must ratify any Brexit deal agreed by negotiators before it can be completed.
Lawyers are divided on whether the UK can unilaterally change its mind about leaving and are bringing a test case to establish the legal reversibility of article 50, but the parliament president spelled out a process by which a simple political decision by other member states would be sufficient.
“If tomorrow, the new UK government decides to change its position, it is possible to do,” said Tajini. “The final decision is for the 27 member states, but everybody will be in favour if the UK [decides to reverse article 50].”
Though stressing the decision was a matter for the UK electorate alone to consider, the president’s intervention is a rebuke to those who argue that the upcoming general election is not a second chance to consider exiting the EU.
“Britain is leaving the European Union and there can be no turning back,” said May on Tuesday as she called the surprise snap election and promised to strengthen the government’s mandate for pursuing Brexit on any terms.
Tajani, an Italian who recently replaced the German veteran Martin Schulz as the international representative of the key EU institution, said he had a largely positive discussion with the prime minister during their first one-on-one meeting on Thursday.
Yet he warned that the European parliament would veto the entire deal if it the UK does not agree to the preservation of all rights of the estimated 3 million EU citizens already settled in the UK and the 1.2m Britons in Europe.
“We will vote against [it],” he said, adding that he wanted “a clear framework in the next months” on EU citizens agreed at a political level. Negotiators would then work on the technical details covering issues such as reciprocal pensions, health, and other issues, a process that is likely to be prolonged.
He also spoke to allay fears among campaigners that if she wins the election Theresa May will try to stop future rights of those settled in the UK, specifically the rights of French, Polish or other EU citizens to have other family members join them.
This is a right EU citizens have been campaigning to protect as it accommodates future care of widowed parents.
Stressing that there should be no diminution of citizens’ rights after Brexit, he added: “For us it’s important to ensure that Brexit does not have negative effects on their life and rights they are enjoying.”
“We want the same rights as today. For us, the agreement is [to have the same rights] as today [and] yesterday, tomorrow,” he said. “For us, it is a priority and it is a red line,” he said.
He said he was optimistic the prime minister would respect all existing rights enjoyed by European citizens because she wanted the same in return for British citizens in the rest of Europe.
He also said the ECJ would regulate the agreement on EU citizens post Brexit, thereby blocking any bid by a future government to renege on the deal struck.
“Under the [Brexit] treaty everything under the treaty is under the court,” said Tajani in a further contradiction of British government policy.
The EU parliament president nonetheless welcomed May’s decision to call a snap election, saying it was unlikely to delay Brexit talks by more than a week and would provide long-term clarity.
“To have a new government before the beginning of the negotiation is good, not only for the UK but for us, because we will have the same negotiators, the same prime minister and we will know the real situation in the UK,” said the EU president.
“It is better for us to work with the same government and not with a potential election campaign [looming].”
Tajani also struck a more positive note than some MEPs about the prospects for moving on to trade talks with Britain before the end of the two-year window allocated for the exit negotiations.
“We hope before the end of 2017 to have a framework on the exit and immediately afterwards it is possible to start with the negotiations for the day after,” said Tajani, whose press conference in the former Conservative party headquarters building in Smith Square was briefly interrupted by a phone call from the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.
“I will inform the [European] council of this meeting and that it was positive. It’s the beginning, there’s a long way but it’s important to start well.”