LUXEMBOURG: Luxembourg's veteran foreign minister Jean Asselborn on Friday said only a move towards a second referendum could win Britain a delay of the current Brexit date at the end of March.
A dedicated European Union federalist known for speaking his mind, Asselborn made his comments while outlining with Prime Minister Xavier Bettel their country's preparations for the most damaging no-deal Brexit scenario.
Since British lawmakers struck down Prime Minister Theresa May's divorce deal negotiated with the EU, expectations have grown that Britain would have to seek a delay to the original Brexit date to prepare for the new reality.
March 29 is the automatic deadline for Britain to exit the EU after a two year notice period under Article 50 of the EU treaty. Extending it would require unanimity among the other 27 EU member countries.
While many EU officials have suggested any such approval would come only with strings attached, Asselborn was very specific about what it would take:
"Only the initiative to hold a second referendum could be an indication to extend Article 50. Maybe it is a bit daring to say so. But it seems obvious that something strong needs to be behind the idea to tinker with Article 50."
Prime Minister Theresa May is staunchly opposed to holding a second referendum on Brexit. Main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has said the option is on the table but has not backed it. But with no consensus in parliament on how to leave the EU, three of Britain's four living former prime ministers say a new public vote would be the only way out of the crisis.
Bettel highlighted the problem of how any Brexit delay would impact European Parliament elections due in May.
"The ball is in London. They have to tell us what they want. We are currently in a situation where we still don't know which direction things are moving in, if there will be an agreement or not. The responsibility is in London," Bettel said.
In case Britain crashes out of the EU without pre-negotiated agreements on what is next, Luxembourg would give some 6,000 Britons living on its soil a year to obtain residence permits and let British citizens working in Luxembourg's schools and public sector keep their jobs, they said.
Asselborn added the government would look next week at draft laws covering Luxembourg's financial sector in a no-deal Brexit contingency.
(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Peter Graff)