BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Jean-Claude Juncker thinks heeding David Cameron’s request to stay silent while Brexit campaigners told “lies” before Britain’s 2016 referendum was the biggest mistake he has made as EU chief executive.
At a Brussels news conference on Tuesday at which he laid out a defence of his record as president of the European Commission, he was asked to name the biggest error of a five-year mandate which ends in October, and he delivered a stinging assessment of the former British leader over the Brexit vote.
After faulting his personal response to a scandal dating to his time as premier of Luxembourg, Juncker said: “The second mistake I made was to listen too carefully to the British government. Cameron. Because the then prime minister asked me not to interfere, not to intervene in the referendum campaign.”
“It was a mistake not to intervene and not to interfere because we would have been the only ones to destroy the lies which were circulated around. I was wrong to be silent at an important moment.”
Cameron angered fellow EU leaders by promising a referendum on Britain’s membership of the bloc in a bid to prevent voters deserting his ruling Conservatives for the UK Independence Party. Having secured some special concessions from the EU, he then campaigned to keep Britain in the EU in the June 2016 vote.
Juncker has said that he kept out of that British debate, partly because Cameron told him it would be counter-productive. Many EU leaders were irritated, however, that Cameron’s campaign made little mention of the special deal they had given him.
Cameron resigned after his defeat, handing over to Theresa May. She has negotiated terms for Britain’s departure but has found them rejected by British lawmakers, delaying Brexit.
Asked if he now believed Britain might stay on, possibly as an awkward member, Juncker made light of the uncertainty, saying he had given up trying to guess British intentions.
Echoing a remark that he had made earlier in his presentation that “nobody understands England but everybody understands English”, Juncker repeated a recent comment likening the British parliament to the enigmatic Sphinx of ancient Egypt.
“Either they will stay or they will leave,” Juncker said. “If they stay they stay; if they leave they leave.”
Editing by William Maclean