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Support for second Brexit referendum ‘almost unanimous’ among EU leaders

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
Theresa May with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Salzburg (Reuters)

The heads of European governments have been privately expressing their hopes that the Brexit vote can be still be reversed, it has been revealed during a crunch EU summit.

Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat has said that support for a second referendum in the UK is “almost unanimous” among the leaders of the other 27 EU member states.

“I think most of us would welcome a situation where there is the possibility of the British people putting things into perspective, seeing what has been negotiated, seeing the options and then deciding once and for all,” he told the Today programme.

His claim was supported by Czech prime minister Andre Babic, who said: “We hope that we will reach a deal but basically I’m very unhappy that the UK is leaving.

“So, it would be better maybe to make another referendum and the people in the meantime could change their view.”

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Muscat admitted though he wasn’t sure whether the result of a second referendum would differ from the first, a 52% to 48% victory for Leave.

The pair made their comments as EU leaders meet in Salzburg for top-level talks on Brexit, as well as migration and security.

It came after Treasury minister Mel Stride said on Wednesday that, if the Chequers deal “doesn’t’ prevail”, there could be “a situation where we could have a second referendum and we could end up not leaving the EU altogether.”

But Theresa May explicitly ruled out another referendum – or even delaying Brexit beyond next March – in a 10 minute address to her fellow leaders in Salzburg on Wednesday night.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker sitting next to prime minister Theresa May at the EU leaders’ summit in Salzburg (Reuters)

That was designed to increase pressure on them to compromise over her Chequers plan, particularly the economic elements which have been repeatedly rejected by the EU.

“If we’re going to achieve a successful conclusion then, just as the UK has evolved its position, the EU will need to evolve its position too,” May said.

EU negotiators say May’s plan to maintain frictionless trade and avoid a hard border in Ireland by effectively keeping the UK in the single market for goods is unacceptable cherry picking.

May’s appeal seemed to have little effect on EU leaders, who raised the same concerns about the Chequers plan as they arrived for the second day of the summit.

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French prime minister Emmanuel Macron said: “We have very clear principles about the integrity of the single market and regarding the Irish border.”

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said: “Whenever the commission is too flexible things are going wrong.”

And Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettell stressed there could be “no cherry picking.”

European Council president Donald Tusk made the same point with a cheeky snap of him and Theresa May on his Instagram account.

That could make the meeting between the pair scheduled for Thursday afternoon a little awkward.

Before that EU leaders will chew over May’s proposals further at working lunch with the bloc’s Brexit chief, Michel Barnier.

They are set to agree that an emergency summit should be held in November, as a deal is now not expected to be ready by the longstanding deadline of the European Council on 18 October.

Labour MP Catherine McKinnell, a spokesperson for the People’s Vote campaign, said the Salzburg summit “has not taken us any nearer to a good deal.”

“Theresa May might hope that a blindfold Brexit where all the big questions are ignored might get her over the line, but across Europe more and more leaders can see it is no more in their interest than it is for the British people, who will be asked to shoulder all the risk of leaving the EU with no deal in place,” she said. 

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