Britain will one day rejoin the EU, the president of the European commission has suggested at the end of a summit to discuss the future of the bloc.
Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters on Friday that he regretted Britain’s decision to leave but held out hope that it would return in the future. “I don’t like Brexit,” he said. “I would like to be in the same boat as the British. The day will come when the British re-enter the boat. I hope.”
A senior Juncker aide later said the option of Britain returning to the EU “will always be open”.
“There are different ways you can join,” the aide said. “You can be a full member, you can be a partner, you can be related to us in the customs union, or through a trade agreement.”
Juncker, who has recently published a white paper offering five options on the future of the EU, added that the UK’s departure would not sound the union’s death knell.
He said: “Brexit is not the end of the European Union, not the end of all our developments, nor the end of our continental ambitions.
“I had the impression from colleagues I talked to in the room, that quite the contrary, the Brexit issue is encouraging the others to continue. Unfortunately, not the British. I have seen in more or less all member states that the approval of European integration is having a larger adherence of the population.”
Juncker was speaking at the end of an informal summit of the 27 member states that will remain when the UK leaves in 2019. During their meeting, the leaders discussed the wording of a draft declaration to be made at a summit in Rome to celebrate the EU’s 60th anniversary.
Some leaders voiced their opposition to the idea, spearheaded by Germany, of formalising the concept of a multispeed Europe, in which member states could pick and choose the speed of their integration. “For some of our colleagues this [multi-speed Europe] is seen as introducing a new dividing line, a new kind of iron curtain between east and west, that is not the intention of this,” Juncker said.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, added that Brexit should be a “wake-up call” to the union. “The motto is that we are united in diversity,” she said. “We talked at some length of this so-called Europe of different speeds. Some people voiced concerns that this might mean that there are different classes of Europeans, first- and second-class citizens as it were. I said such a difference of European unity is laid down in the treaties. It is a lived reality now.”
Merkel added that having a strong feeling of identity with one’s own country did not preclude continued membership of the EU. She said: “Feeling that you belong to a certain nation but at the same time standing up for what Europe stands for, European values, are not contradictions. We always say in Germany that these are two sides of the same coin.”
Meanwhile the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, said at the summit that the EU would be ready to respond within 48 hours to Britain’s notification that it plans to leave the 28-nation bloc.
Theresa May has said the UK will submit its formal notification to exit the EU by the end of March. Some diplomats expect it to come as early as next week, although there is some doubt that May would want to do it on the eve of the SNP’s spring conference, providing Nicola Sturgeon with an opportunity to grandstand on the issue.
The Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, told reporters that a special EU summit where the 27 could discuss their negotiating position could take place in early April if Britain submitted its notification by 15 March.