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Sunak rejects von der Leyen’s comments that UK could rejoin EU

<span>Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA</span>
Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Rishi Sunak has rejected the suggestion that Brexit could be in peril after Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, claimed that the UK could be on a path to rejoining the European Union.

At an event in Brussels on Tuesday night, von der Leyen admitted that European leaders had “goofed up” over the departure of Britain from the bloc and suggested the younger generation could “fix” it.

Asked if the UK could ever rejoin the EU, she replied: “I must say, I keep telling my children: ‘You have to fix it. We goofed it up, you have to fix it.’ So I think here too, the direction of travel – my personal opinion – is clear.”

However, Sunak’s official spokesperson, replied that the British prime ministerdid not believe that Brexit was in peril. He told reporters at Westminster: “It’s through our Brexit freedoms that we are, right now, considering how to further strengthen our migration system.

“It is through our Brexit freedoms we are ensuring patients in the UK can get access to medicines faster, that there is improved animal welfare. That is very much what we are focused on.”

The spokesperson added: “We have a prime minister that championed Brexit before it was in his career interests to do so because he believes in it passionately. We are very focused on making a success of it.”

Von der Leyen made the comments at an awards ceremony staged by Politico as relations between the EU and the UK continue to improve following their near-collapse under Johnson and David Frost, who negotiated the Brexit trade deal.

David Cameron, the UK’s foreign secretary, made his first official return to Brussels this week after departing No 10 in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Officially he was in the EU capital to attend a meeting of Nato foreign ministers but he squeezed in an hour-long meeting with Maroš Šefčovič, a vice-president of the European Commission who was a chief Brexit negotiator for the bloc.

Although Cameron had campaigned for remain, nervousness about being back in the embrace of the EU was evident. He declined to speak to the media on his first day in the Belgian capital and was refusing any questions on the second.

Coincidentally he met Šefčovič just as the EU car industry renewed its call for a tweak to the Brexit deal to suspend looming tariffs on exports of EU vehicles to the UK and imports to the EU from Britain.

Within the Conservative party Brexit remains a divisive subject. Sunak and von der Leyen have enjoyed cordial relations ever since they hatched a deal to improve the deal for Northern Ireland and the UK returned to the Horizon programme.

However, on Wednesday, Priti Patel, the former home secretary, said the Windsor framework that changed the Northern Ireland protocol was not working. In an article for the Unionist Voice website, she wrote that the UK government needed to act over the “tentacles of EU control over Northern Ireland”.

“Government satisfaction with the limited progress the Windsor framework has made should not act as a block to seeking further progress to fully deliver our 2019 manifesto commitment and the promises made to Northern Ireland,” she added.

There is no appetite in the EU to return to the toxicity of the Brexit years but Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has repeatedly made it clear he wants to improve relations, with further alignment on issues such as veterinary standards, which cover farm produce, fresh food, leather goods, fish and timber.

The trade deal has a built-in facility to have a chapter on veterinary alignment that means the Brexit deal would not have to be “reopened” and would not need to be signed off by 27 EU leaders. However, well-informed sources in Brussels said it would be a “painful negotiation” that could take years to conclude.

Senior business leaders and trade bodies have backed Starmer’s comments that Britain should not part from the European Union on standards ranging from the environment to employment.

The Labour leader has come under fire from the Conservatives, who accused him of wanting to “unpick” Brexit after saying that “most of the conflict” since 2016 had arisen because the UK “wants to diverge and do different things to the rest of our EU partners”.

In a letter to the Guardian in September, dozens of business leaders, including the chair of Virgin, the head of the British Poultry Council and the chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, said a policy of alignment would enable businesses to have “confidence” while still allowing the UK to have “regulatory autonomy”.