By Jean-Baptiste Vey and Noah Barkin
PARIS/BERLIN (Reuters) – France and Germany distanced themselves on Wednesday from a suggestion by French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy that he could reverse Brexit if elected next year by negotiating a new European Union treaty more acceptable to Britain.
Sarkozy, who has raised eyebrows in European capitals recently with his tough rhetoric on immigration, promises to ignore deficit targets and comments playing down climate change, told business leaders in Paris on Tuesday that he was committed to keeping Britain in the EU and had a plan to do so.
If elected in May of next year, he said he would travel to Berlin a day later with the draft of a new EU treaty that he would present to German Chancellor Angela Merkel for approval.
Sarkozy said he would then travel on to London to give the British government an opportunity to drop its promise to take Britain out of the EU following the June 23 Brexit referendum.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has said repeatedly that “Brexit means Brexit” and signaled that she will trigger divorce proceedings with the EU early next year.
The French and German governments have said they view Brexit as irreversible. Berlin, Paris and their EU partners have also made clear they do not foresee undertaking politically sensitive changes to the EU treaty in the foreseeable future.
“I don’t see how one country can ask another to hold a new vote. It is up to the British to decide this,” French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said in response to a question about Sarkozy’s proposal. He added that it was “difficult to follow the logic” of Sarkozy’s initiative.
Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said the German government’s view that Brexit was irreversible had not changed.
A senior EU official added: “No one is talking about keeping Britain in now. Mrs. May has said ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and we don’t see how politically the British can reverse course. No one is expecting a miracle.”
The British government did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
“RECONCILING THE PEOPLE” WITH EU
Sarkozy, a former president, and Alain Juppe, a former prime minister, are the leading contenders to become the conservative candidate for president. Whoever wins the conservative primary in November will be seen as the odds-on favorite to replace the unpopular Socialist incumbent Francois Hollande next year.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Sarkozy repeated proposals he has been making for months for a new treaty he says should focus on reforming the Schengen free-travel zone, reining in the powers of the European Commission, integrating the euro zone further and halting membership talks with Turkey.
An adviser to Sarkozy said his proposals were important for the EU as a whole, not only for Britain, adding that the former president was not trying to tell London what to do.
“It’s on the basis of this new Europe that we could reconcile the people – British and others – with the European project,” the adviser told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Sarkozy’s broad message was welcomed by some members of Merkel’s conservative party, though they conceded that pushing through a new EU treaty would be a huge challenge.
“I’m convinced that the EU will be worse off without Britain,” Thorsten Frei, a conservative lawmaker who sits on the European affairs committee of the Bundestag, told Reuters. “Therefore I believe it is right to do everything possible, despite the difficulties, to find ways to keep us together.”
Frei said he agreed with all four of the elements mentioned by Sarkozy, including ending Turkey’s membership talks.
“We need to be clear that under the current conditions, the membership talks with Turkey are an illusion that have nothing to do with reality because Turkey is moving away from Europe,” Frei said.
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander, Alastair Macdonald, Elizabeth Piper, Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones)