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

Danny KEMP
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Anti-Brexit demonstrators fly the EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament last month, unhappy at the prospect of Britain falling off the EU cliff

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," Simon Usherwood, deputy director of the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank, told AFP.

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.

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.

- 'No plan' -

The sudden rush of affection comes despite months of bad-tempered Brexit divorce negotiations between London and a European Union 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 coordinated effort by the EU to turn back the clock.

"There is no plan behind it," a senior EU official told AFP, adding it was "something Tusk has been saying consistently from the beginning in different ways, like when he said he said 'I'm a dreamer'."

In July, former Polish premier Tusk invoked John Lennon when he quoted the lyrics from his song "Imagine" to explain that he was a "dreamer" about a possible British return.

But the official denied it was a ploy to divide the British side in the tough Brexit negotiations, saying: "Whatever Tusk might dream it doesn't influence how he will negotiate, which is based on a 99.9 percent assumption that the UK will leave."

An EU diplomat said Juncker's comment was not about reversing Brexit but only about eventually rejoining, adding that the newly emollient tone was because "we are not in a hostile mood."

- 'Nobody likes Brexit' -

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," Cleppe, head of the Brussels office for the think-tank Open Europe, told AFP.

"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.

Britain and the EU reached an in-principle agreement on separation terms in December. They are due to start talks in February on a post-Brexit transition period, and in April on future ties, including a trade deal, but much remains to be thrashed out.

Usherwood agreed that the EU leaders were just "keeping it alive as a point for discussion", and offering an "expression of solidarity" for europhiles in Britain who have seized on Farage's comments.

"The EU has enough sense of the political debate in the UK to know that it isn't a viable option, but it doesn't hurt to remind them that it's possible," added Usherwood, who is also a reader in politics at the University of Surrey.

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