Jean-Claude Juncker has said he regrets failing to rebut claims made in the run-up to the Brexit referendum about the hundreds of millions of pounds the UK would save each week if it left the EU.
In an interview in which the European commission president also criticised the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, over his recent Brussels-bashing, Juncker said he could not understand why he had failed to speak out.
But speaking to the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, Juncker said the commission should have stepped in during the campaign to highlight what he claimed had been an attempt to deceive the British electorate.
He said: “How did Brexit happen? I read time and again that the commission and the union were to blame for this plight.
“The truth is, for over 40 years people in the UK have been told that they are in the EU, but only for economic reasons and that the rest, the union based on values, is of no interest, so it should come as no surprise that people in the UK voted the way they did.
“However, I see it as a barely comprehensible error on my part to abide by UK wishes and abstain from that Brexit campaign. So many lies were told, and so many of the consequences resulting from a ‘no’ were misrepresented, that we, as the commission, should have spoken out.
“In hindsight, failing to rebut the claim that the UK sent £300m [sic] per week to Brussels without drawing any benefit was a mistake.”
The UK’s membership of the EU has been extended until 31 October to allow extra time for the withdrawal agreement to be approved and ratified by parliament.
The commission president said his “working hypothesis” was that Brexit “will be resolved by the time I step down on 1 November”.
He counselled against a no-deal exit for the UK, a proposal that has been backed by a series of cabinet ministers in recent days given the lack of progress in the cross-party talks.
Juncker said: “I am against a ‘clean break’. We know precisely what that means, in every detail. People in the UK were not at all clear about what a ‘no’ means.
“We are well prepared. I think that common sense should result in the ruling parties resolving matters as swiftly as possible.”
Juncker said last month that he would speak out before the European elections if he saw Brussels being unfairly criticised for electoral advantage.
Asked about Kurz’s claim that the EU had a “regulation mania” and had sought to ban schnitzel and chips through the acrylamide directive designed to reduce the levels of carcinogenic substances in food, Juncker said: “It’s a directive that Austria voted for … And obviously the directive doesn’t ban schnitzel or chips.
“He’s subscribing to the agenda of those who don’t actually challenge Europe’s acts and omissions but complain about it across the board. I don’t think it’s a good thing that he, who supports Europe, should be joining the chorus of anti-European voices.”
Asked about Kurz’s motivation, Juncker added: “I have enough to do analysing my own psychology without trying to analyse other people’s. I think these aspersions cast on the European Union are completely wide of the mark.”