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8th May 2021

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Internal EU paper: Second Brexit vote was no longer 'distant dream'

  • An anti-Brexit protest last March was one of the biggest demonstrations in UK history (Photo: quisnovus)

A second referendum about the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union was no longer "a distant dream" back in January 2019, according to an internal European Commission document released at the request of EUobserver.

The document is a briefing for Pierre Moscovici, European commissioner for economic and financial affairs, taxation and customs, ahead of his meeting with former UK prime minister Tony Blair last January at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

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  • Tony Blair (l) and Pierre Moscovici at a meeting in Brussels in 2015 (Photo: European Commission)

No author is identified, as is customary for such briefing texts, which are normally written by civil servants.

The paper does not necessarily reflect the commission's official position, or clarify whose "dream" a second referendum would fulfil. It could also be that views on the second referendum's chances have since changed due to current affairs.

But its release at least gives a hint of how civil servants within the commission looked at the prospect of another Brexit vote.

The two-page document started with a "scene setter", preparing Moscovici for his meeting with Blair.

"Since you last saw Tony Blair in Davos a year ago, the position he is defending, a second referendum on Brexit, has gone from a distant dream to which few attached much credibility, to one of the most frequently talked about possible outcome to the current impasse (along with the so-called 'Norway+ option', i.e. Single Market plus customs union membership'."

It went on to give some quotes Blair gave in media interviews.

The briefing ended with some suggested questions Moscovici could ask Blair, including what the "parliamentary path" to a second referendum would be; how much support for it there was among MPs from Blair's Labour party, and what the long-term effects would be on Britain's party system.

The paper also included a potential question which since then has become outdated: "What in your view happens to Theresa May if parliament forces her hand on a second referendum is called? Does she finally step down?".

May's term as prime minister ended on 24 July, after which she was succeeded by Boris Johnson.

The Moscovici-Blair meeting took place on 24 January, less than two weeks after May suffered a historic defeat in the House of Commons, which refused to back the withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU.

The EU civil servant or servants behind the commission briefing paper also wondered how the campaign for a second referendum would look like: "How optimistic are you that in case of a second vote, Remain would win this time? I know the demographics have shifted the odds in Remain's favour, but aren't you concerned about a backlash and a sense of betrayal? Won't the campaign be even uglier than in 2016?".

It is unclear what Blair's answers were, or even if Moscovici asked these questions.

The commission released the briefing paper in response to an access to documents request by this website.

It also gave wider access to a document it previously redacted, an e-mail by Moscovici's cabinet member Simon O'Connor.

The e-mail gave a summary of the Moscovici-Blair meeting, as well as other talks the French EU commissioner had in Davos.

It described Blair, as well as Hungarian-US billionaire George Soros, as "the two earliers backers of a 'People's Vote".

The qualification "before it was a credible [option]" now appeared unredacted, as did the phrase that "if amendments passed in Commons, chances [for a second vote] would increase further".

Last March, an amendment in the House of Commons to support a second referendum was defeated 85-334.

That same month, an anti-Brexit march was one of the largest protests in the country's history, with estimates ranging from 312,000-400,000 protesters to one million (according to the organisers).

In the 2016 in/out UK referendum, 52 percent voted to leave the EU.

The UK is now due to leave the EU on 31 October.

Since Johnson took office in 10 Downing Street, no new negotiations have taken place, and rhetoric on a 'no deal Brexit' has increased.

Johnson has said he wanted to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement the EU reached with his predecessor.

A European Commission spokeswoman repeated on Wednesday (14 August) what its president Jean-Claude Juncker told Johnson last month: the EU is willing to talk to the UK, but on the basis of the withdrawal agreement already agreed.

"The UK knows well that our doors remain open to that affect, but for the talks to progress the UK government needs to explain its ideas on how it sees the way forward respecting the commitments it took earlier in these negotiations," said the spokeswoman.

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