Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has slammed the door on Britain retaining access to the single market if it votes to the leave the European Union.
In an interview in a Brexit-themed issue of German weekly Der Spiegel, the influential veteran politician ruled out the possibility of the UK following a Swiss or Norwegian model that would allow it to enjoy the benefits of the single market without being an EU member.
“That won’t work,” Schäuble told Der Spiegel. “It would require the country to abide by the rules of a club from which it currently wants to withdraw. If the majority in Britain opts for Brexit, that would be a decision against the single market. In is in. Out is out. One has to respect the sovereignty of the British people.”
The German conservative’s intervention seems to rule out the “reverse Maastricht” option floated privately by some British MPs and government sources, whereby pro-remain MPs in Westminster could use their parliamentary majority to retain access to the single market after a British exit from the EU.
Their first target is likely to be to try to ensure that despite a Brexit the UK could remain in the single market by joining the European economic area, of which the non-EU countries Norway, Lichtenstein and Iceland are currently members.
The single market – to which Switzerland also has access despite not being a member of either the EU or the EEA – guarantees the free movement of people, goods and services inside the bloc.
Supporters of the British leave campaign argue that it is in Germany’s economic interest to maintain barrier-free trade relations with the United Kingdom. Britain is the third-largest export market for German car manufacturers and the destination of around 7% of total German exports.
In a debate on the BBC, Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, went even further than the official leave campaign and suggested getting rid of tariffs on goods traded with all countries.
This was condemned by the remain campaign, who said it was a “reckless” plan that would “decimate our domestic industries”.
“People would be able to sell in to the UK market for free, but our exporters would face tariffs selling in to Europe,” a spokesman said.
Commentators in Germany point out that Germany has more to lose from a Brexit than a segment of its export market and that the government was able to sideline economic interest to diplomacy in its relationship with Russia.
Until recently, the assumption in Berlin’s political circles had been that Schäuble’s finance ministry was more open than others to the idea of keeping open a back door for renegotiating some form of associate membership for Britain after an out vote.
But the interview in Der Spiegel, which will be published on Saturday but has been seen by the Guardian, indicates a less flexible stance. “Europe will also work without Britain if necessary,” Schäuble said. “At some point, the British will realise they have taken the wrong decision. And then we will accept them back one day, if that’s what they want.”
The Christian Democrat, seen as the key actor behind Germany’s hardline stance towards Greece at the height of the eurozone debt crisis, said he and his counterparts in the eurozone would “do everything possible to contain these consequences …We are preparing for all possible scenarios to limit the risks,” he added.
While warning that it would be a “miracle” if there were no economic drawbacks for Britain following a withdrawal, Schäuble also admitted that a Brexit could have dramatic consequences for the rest of the European Union.
The 73-year-old said it could not be ruled out that other countries could follow Britain’s lead after the referendum on 23 June: “How, for example, would the Netherlands react, as a country that has traditionally had very close ties to Britain? It is important for the EU to send the message that it has understood the vote and is prepared to learn from it.”
Schäuble also poured cold water on suggestions that France and Germany would react to Britain’s departure from the 28-member bloc with a leap towards accelerated integration. On the contrary, he said, it was important that the EU needed to show that it could learn from the British referendum.
“In response to Brexit, we couldn’t simply call for more integration,” he is quoted as saying. “That would be crude; many would rightfully wonder whether we politicians still haven’t understood. Even in the event that only a small majority of the British voters reject a withdrawal, we would have to see it as a wake-up call and a warning not to continue with business as usual. Either way, we have to take a serious look at reducing bureaucracy in Europe.”
Leading figures in the campaign to leave the EU, including Michael Gove, the UK justice secretary, want to officially withdraw from the single market to stop freedom of movement. But Matthew Elliott, its chief executive, said in response to Schäuble: “The eurozone economies are dependent on trade with the UK. We are the fifth largest economy in the world, while many of them are in a desperate state due to the failing single currency. There is no question about it, Britain will still have access to the single market after we vote leave. It would be perverse of the eurozone to try to create artificial barriers – and would do far more damage to them than to anyone else.
“One thing that will change if we vote leave is that we will be able to forge trade deals with the economic powerhouses of the future – the emerging markets – which we are currently forbidden from doing by the EU. That’s why we will not only be stronger and more secure if we vote to leave the EU, we will also be more prosperous.”
However, George Osborne, the UK chancellor, who has played a leading role in the remain campaign, tweeted:
Peter Mandelson, the former EU trade commissioner and ex-business secretary, said Schäuble’s comments “finally knocks on the head the leave campaign’s claim that we can leave the EU and still enjoy the benefits of the single market”.
“We cannot leave the club and continue to use its facilities,” the Labour peer said. “Being outside the single market wold be a hammer blow to the UK economy. Our future trade [would] be hit and our manufacturing sector, which relies on the single market’s free movement of goods and people, [would] be at risk. This is the cold reality of Brexit that the British people must face. If we leave we lose the economic gains of being the world’s largest free-trade zone, putting jobs and livelihoods at risk.”
Iain Duncan Smith, the former work and pensions secretary, said of Schäuble’s comments: “To quote Mandy Rice-Davis, he would say that, wouldn’t he? … What I call the realpolitik underneath the surface is that they don’t want to get into spats. Of course they don’t. We’re a friend, we cooperate in Nato, the G8 and G20. Mr Schauble’s bound to say what he said. Come on. Don’t tell me that Mr Osborne hasn’t been on that line to him almost permanently for the last few weeks …
“You’ll probably get a load of these statements. Every finance minister in Europe is going to line up. They’ve probably got them every day between now and the referendum.”
The leave campaign has said it does not want to be in the single market, because it would not want the UK to have free movement. But its leading advocates, including Boris Johnson and Gove, dismiss the idea that Germany or other EU countries would impose trade tariffs given they sell the UK more in manufactured goods than they buy.
Schäuble’s comments were made on the same day that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, repeated her hope that Britain would vote to remain in the EU. Speaking on Friday to a group representing family-owned businesses, Merkel said: “From my point of view, Great Britain remaining in the European Union is the best and most desirable thing for us all.
“We have very close cooperation on many questions with Great Britain and would of course like to continue this within the framework of the European Union.’’
Der Spiegel, which sells around 800,000 copies per issue, has upped its circulation in the UK for Saturday’s special bilingual edition and reduced the cover price from £5.20 to £2. The cover carries the headline in German and English: “Please don’t go!”
In an editorial, the magazine argues that while it is too late “to convince the British to love the EU, perhaps we should use this opportunity to mention how much the rest of Europe admires them. It’s unbelievable that they don’t seem to see how much they’ve shaped the continent, how much we value them here, how close we Germans feel to them”.
“Germany has always looked across the Channel with some degree of envy,” it adds. “On our emotional map of Europe, the Italians were responsible for love and good food, the French for beauty and elegance and the Brits for nonchalance and progress. They have an inner independence that we Germans lack, in addition to myriad anti-authoritarian, defiant tendencies. A lot of what happened in Britain spilled over to us sooner or later, reinforcing our cultural ties.”
In a homage to British cultural exports ranging from “James Bond to Twiggy’s haircut”, the magazine’s staff writers said they wanted to offer Britain a “firm handshake, coupled with an honest, straightforward appeal: remain”.