EU Brexit chief Michel Barnier is being urged by MPs to prepare for Britain to stay in – and boost the chances of that outcome by confirming the bloc’s willing to delay the divorce date.
Politicians from four parties – the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens – are meeting Barnier in Brussels on Thursday evening.
Lib Dem leader Vince Cable, who described the delegation as an “unholy alliance”, said they would call on the French politician to ensure the EU is ready for voters to change their minds over Brexit.
More details of the EU’s preparations for a no-deal are set to be published imminently and European Council president Donald Tusk said that scenario is “more likely than ever” after the failure to conclude a deal last week.
But, speaking to Yahoo UK in Brussels, Cable said the EU should be alive to the “gathering momentum” behind a ‘people’s vote’ following the 700,000-strong march at the weekend.
“Certainly, the UK mood has changed,” he said. “A ‘people’s vote’ is now a serious option.
“The specific thing that we want to persuade Mr Barnier on is that the Commission needs to do serious contingency planning in the event that we do go down that route in the UK.”
The Sunday Times revealed that the UK government have prepared for the possibility of a second referendum and Cable added: “It makes sense for the Europeans as well.
“They’ve got various ongoing issues around the budget that they will need to adjust if Britain stays in and the process of cancelling Article 50, which shouldn’t be massive but it will need to be formerly cleared here.”
Plaid Cymru’s leader at Westminster, Liz Saville-Roberts, also told Yahoo UK that she would be asking Barnier whether he would be willing to extend the Article 50 process in order to give more time to hold a second referendum.
“As soon as you are beyond the 29th of March, we are a third country and we are out,” she said.
“If you’re beyond that you’re essentially applying to come back in again which is entirely new ground politically from the EU’s point of view.”
Asked whether the outcome of a second referendum would be different to the first, Saville-Roberts said: “I think it would be a much more informed vote. People, almost against their will, are much more informed than they were previously.
“I very much do not believe democracy is a once in a lifetime, once in a generation, event.”
Theresa May has consistently said that she is not willing to consider holding a second referendum, but the MPs meeting Barnier on Thursday believe it could become “inevitable” if there is deadlock over a Brexit deal in the Commons.
Cable insisted he was “not a fan of referendums” but argued: “There’s no other way of resolving the issue.”
One complicating factor for politicians hoping to keep the UK in the EU is the issue of the budget rebate, which was negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984 and was worth £4bn in 2016.
EU budget commissioner Gunther Oettinger said recently the UK’s rebate would still be phased out even in the “fabulous” scenario voters decided to remain in the EU.
Challenged over that prospect, Cable replied: “We know that is simply wrong because the British have a veto on that which has been exercised in the past by Mr Blair and certainly I’ve been told separately by liberal leaders in Europe that we would be welcome to stay.
“Once we go back over the Brexit day then of course the situation changes but as long as we complete this process within the time period, possibly extended, then I think he is simply wrong.”
Barnier met senior Conservative Brexit supporters, Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson, along with Lord Trimble of the Ulster Unionist party earlier in the week.
He will meet London mayor Sadiq Khan, who is Labour’s most senior supporter of a second referendum, on Friday.
A European commission spokesperson said on Thursday: “We want to reach a deal with the United Kingdom on its orderly withdrawal from the EU. This is what we’re working for.”
“Contacts” between civil servants from both sides have resumed and Barnier is read to meet UK Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab “at any point in time”, they added.