European Council President Donald Tusk at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Tuesday April 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)
Donald Tusk, European Council president, says that cancelling Brexit cannot be ruled out © AP

Donald Tusk still “dreams” of the UK reversing Brexit after clashing with members of the European Parliament over the decision to extend Britain’s exit negotiations by six months. 

The president of the European Council told MEPs in Strasbourg on Tuesday that he would not “give into fatalism” over Britain leaving the bloc. 

EU27 leaders last week agreed to extend the UK’s Article 50 negotiations to October 31, despite opposition led by French president Emmanuel Macron. Mr Tusk, who has previously described himself as an anglophile and fierce supporter of the UK, said cancelling Brexit could not be ruled out over the next six months. 

“During the European Council one of the leaders warned us not to be dreamers, and that we shouldn't think that Brexit could be reversed,” Mr Tusk told MEPs.

“I didn't respond at the time, but today, in front of you, I would like to say: at this rather difficult moment in our history, we need dreamers and dreams. We cannot give in to fatalism. At least I will not stop dreaming about a better and united Europe.”

The decision to grant Theresa May another six months has drawn criticism from some MEPs who fear UK participation in EU elections next month would cause havoc in Parliament and lead to a new wave of Eurosceptic MEPs in the chamber.

“October 31 is too near for a substantial rethink and too far away to prompt any action,” said Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit chief and leader of the bloc’s liberal party. “It will continue the uncertainty, prolong the indecision and import the Brexit mess into EU politics.” 

Mr Verhofstadt added that the long extension also risked “poisoning” a European election campaign where Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party could emerge as the biggest winners. 

“The decision could risk killing Europe — at least bog it down for years to come — [by] putting our energy in negotiations with British leaders, like Mr [Jeremy] Corbyn or Mr [Boris] Johnson, who in their heart despise Europe,” he said. 

“I never thought I would say this in this Parliament but maybe the only thing that can save us is Nigel Farage,” said the former Belgian prime minister, who warned that the six-month extension was undermining the EU’s united stance on Brexit. 

Mr Verhofstadt’s comments were applauded by Mr Farage in the chamber. Mr Tusk hit back, noting that Mr Farage’s approval should be “a good enough reason for you, Mr Verhofstadt, to deeply rethink and reformulate your argumentation”.

The former Polish prime minister also cautioned against treating incoming UK MEPs as “second-class” lawmakers. Any newly elected British MEPs would maintain their “full rights and obligations”, including voting on EU legislation and ratifying the selection of new European commissioners. 

If the UK’s withdrawal agreement passes the House of Commons before July, any newly elected MEPs will not take their seats in the new European Parliament, which is formally constituted on July 2. 

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